Rose-coloured view of a ro­mance on the run

La­bor Day Grudge Match

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Strat­ton

(M) ★★★ ✩ Na­tional re­lease from Fe­bru­ary 6

(M) ★★ ✩✩ Na­tional re­lease from Thurs­day

FOR Hol­ly­wood in the teens of the 21st cen­tury, screen ro­mance is pretty much the prov­ince of the young. This is noth­ing new, of course, but to­day’s ro­mances, which it some­times seems are in­vari­ably de­rived from nov­els by Ni­cholas Sparks, are, for the most part, su­per­fi­cial and trite. A fairly warm wel­come, then, to La­bor Day, a new film from Ja­son Reit­man, di­rec­tor of such so­phis­ti­cated movies as Juno and Up in the Air. Reit­man’s screen­play for this ma­ture love story is based on a novel by Joyce May­nard, and one of the most in­ter­est­ing as­pects of the film is the risk it takes in pre­sent­ing a rather un­usual amal­gam of The Bridges of Madi­son County and The Des­per­ate Hours.

The voice of Tobey Maguire nar­rates the events that oc­curred on the last weekend of the sum­mer of 1987 (La­bor Day weekend). Maguire’s char­ac­ter, Henry, is look­ing back at the time when he was 14, played by Gat­tlin Grif­fith, and liv­ing with his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), in a suf­fo­cat­ing sub­ur­ban house. Adele is a deeply un­happy woman; her hus­band, Henry’s fa­ther (Clark Gregg), left them some time ear­lier for rea­sons that are re­vealed later in the film. He lives not far away with his new wife and chil­dren, and keeps in touch with his son, but Henry is acutely aware of his mother’s lone­li­ness.

Like the char­ac­ter played by Meryl Streep in Clint East­wood’s ex­cel­lent Madi­son County, Adele’s life is about to be trans­formed by the un­ex­pected ar­rival of a stranger. When Adele and Henry visit the lo­cal su­per­mar­ket on the Fri­day be­fore the long weekend, they’re ac­costed by a man who forces them to drive him to their home.

The man, a con­vict who has just es­caped from a prison hos­pi­tal, is wounded and des­per­ate. His name is Frank Cham­bers (Josh Brolin) and he’s been serv­ing 18 years for mur­der (again, the de­tails of his crime only emerge late in the film). If he can hide out un­til his wound heals, he be­lieves, he stands a chance of es­cap­ing the po­lice drag­net that has locked down the area.

By this time the film has en­tered The Des­per­ate Hours ter­ri­tory (the thriller in which a dan­ger­ous run­away con­vict takes over the home of an hon­est, av­er­age fam­ily and ter­rorises them). But that’s not the di­rec­tion La­bor Day is go­ing to take, and therein lies the dif­fi­culty some au­di­ences may ex­pe­ri­ence with it. Frank proves to be the most de­cent, kindly, thought­ful es­caped con­vict the screen has given us since We’re No An­gels, and al­though the rea­sons for this are grad­u­ally, and for the most part pretty con­vinc­ingly, ex­plained, his be­hav­iour is at times too good to be true.

For­tu­nately, Reit­man is no hack di­rec­tor. His in­tel­li­gence and skill man­age to make the story’s im­prob­a­bil­i­ties more ac­cept­able than you might at first sup­pose and in this he’s enor­mously as­sisted by his three prin­ci­pal ac­tors. Winslet beau­ti­fully cap­tures the long­ing and frus­tra­tion of the aban­doned wife who re­acts with a kind of amaze­ment at the kindly pres­ence of a man she at first feared would be a vi­o­lent and dan­ger­ous in­truder. And though Brolin’s Frank is al­most saintly (a handy­man who can bake a peach pie, and a sur­ro­gate fa­ther into the bar­gain), the ac­tor brings con­vic­tion to this chal­leng­ing role. None of the drama would work as well as it does, though, with­out a strong young ac­tor in the role of Henry, and Grif­fith achieves ev­ery­thing de­manded of him. Al­though he’s too young to un­der­stand his mother’s needs, he grad­u­ally re­sponds to the fa­ther fig­ure who has un­ex­pect­edly en­tered his world. In ad­di­tion, his scenes with a more ex­pe­ri­enced girl his own age, played with ma­ture know­ing­ness by Brighid Flem­ing, are par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive.

Though it un­de­ni­ably tack­les risky ma­te­rial and is a far cry from the light, hu­mor­ous ap­proach of the di­rec­tor’s bet­ter-known films, La­bor Day is ul­ti­mately sur­pris­ingly sat­is­fy­ing, though the sen­ti­men­tal coda is a lit­tle cloy­ing. As a bonus, it’s most beau­ti­fully pho­tographed by Eric Steel­berg, whose im­ages of a re­mem­bered childhood, seen in this case through rose-coloured spec­ta­cles, are exquisitely achieved. IN 1993, Grumpy Old Men be­came a suc­cess­ful screen ve­hi­cle for Jack Lem­mon and Wal­ter Matthau, and more re­cently a cou­ple of Bri­tish tele­vi­sion se­ries fea­tur­ing grumpy old men — and women — moan­ing about how things used to be bet­ter when they were young have been sur­pris­ingly suc­cess­ful. Per­haps that’s why some bright spark in Hol­ly­wood had the idea to team two of the screen’s most fa­mous box­ing he­roes, Sylvester Stal­lone’s Rocky and Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta (from Rag­ing Bull) in a film that might have been ti­tled ‘‘ Grumpy Old Men Knock Them­selves Silly’’. Grudge Match is the ti­tle of this con­fec­tion, and it seems squarely aimed at older cin­ema­go­ers who, th­ese days, are just as likely to watch it on their tele­vi­sion screens at home.

Here’s the set-up. Back in the early 80s (the first Rocky was made in 1976, Rag­ing Bull in 1980), Henry ‘‘ Ra­zor’’ Sharp (Stal­lone) and Billy ‘‘ The Kid’’ McDon­nen (De Niro) were box­ing ri­vals. As a fake doc­u­men­tary ex­plains at the be­gin­ning of the film, they fought twice back then, with the re­sults evenly di­vided be­tween the two of them. A sched­uled third fight never took place be­cause of Ra­zor’s abrupt re­tire­ment. Now Ra­zor leads a lonely life in a run­down house un­der a free­way in Pitts­burgh and works in a foundry, while Kid is seem­ingly more pros­per­ous, the owner of both a used car busi­ness and a bar/steak­house called Knocked Up. Dante Slate Jr (Kevin Hart), an ea­ger young en­tre­pre­neur and per­haps a sur­ro­gate for whichever one of the film’s seven credited producers ini­ti­ated the project, has the idea of re-team­ing th­ese age­ing vet­er­ans in a match he has cutely named Grudge­ment Day. Af­ter a reel or so of ob­jec­tions, both men agree (if they hadn’t there wouldn’t have been a movie, of course) be­cause both need the money.

This might have looked good on pa­per, and the cham­pagne corks prob­a­bly popped when both the age­ing ac­tors signed on for the film, but the re­sult is pretty or­di­nary, mainly be­cause there are no sur­prises.

The out-of-shape vet­er­ans both have their rea­sons for want­ing the re­match, most of them cen­tring around a long-ago rivalry for the same woman, Sally, who, right on cue, comes back into their lives and is charm­ingly por­trayed by Kim Basinger. Not only that, but McDon­nen gets to meet his long-lost son, BJ (Jon Bern­thal), and im­pos­si­bly cute grand­son while Sharp is able to both give and re­ceive sup­port from his el­derly coach, Light­ning (a role in which Alan Arkin, for once, over­does the cur­mud­geonly char­ac­ter he’s made his own of late).

Work­ing from a cob­bled-to­gether screen­play by Tim Kelle­her and Rod­ney Roth­man, di­rec­tor Peter Se­gal pretty much goes through the mo­tions. You’ve got Rocky v LaMotta — what else do you need? And so the cliches abound right up to the in­evitable cli­max, in which two el­derly men fight each other to the fin­ish, a pro­tracted se­quence that will be uned­i­fy­ing to all but the most diehard fans of this sort of thing.

An amus­ing epi­logue, in­volv­ing Mike Tyson, is one of the mi­nor high­lights of a par­tic­u­larly con­trived ‘‘ en­ter­tain­ment’’.

La­bor Day, Grudge Match,

Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin in

above; Sylvester Stone, Robert De Niro and Kevin Hart in

left

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