What the hell was Jason Reitman thinking? To read the reviews of Labor Day, Reitman’s fifth film, is to be forced to ponder the question at length. Reitman has taken a rambling detour off the path of becoming auteur to film’s most sardonic characters this side of Minnesota with Adèle, a somber single mother who honest-to-goodness falls for an escaped convict when he forces his way into her house, then into her heart. It’s little wonder such a sentimental protagonist has infuriated the very set that last lauded Charlize Theron’s aspiring “other woman” in his previous film, Young Adult.
But to focus on the disaster Labor Day’s Adèle spells for Reitman’s future as a storyteller would be to ignore the one wearing the apron. We might have forgiven Reitman, who ventured into shades of pathos with George Clooney’s frequent flier in Up in the Air, for whipping up a melodrama as butter-slicked and airy as the golden top of the film’s now-famous peach pie, if only to quell his character’s loneliness. That the woman being tied up to a chair in this glorified bondage fantasy romance is Kate Winslet, however, makes for Labor Day’s most egregious gaffe. In a role that represents a giant step backward for the female characters she has mastered over the last decade, Winslet’s casting exposes all the backwards politics of Labor Day’s otherwise harmless melodrama.
Consider the scenario: late summer hot spell, small-town homestead, filmed in golden-tinted period piece cinematography. Vague murmurs of domestic unrest. A listless woman confined to the home, dressed in shoulder-baring floral dresses, the sensuous gleam of sweat glossing her forehead. It’s a familiar setup for Winslet, modern film’s best interpreter of the troubled housebound woman acting out. From early roles as sympathetic but sedentary sufferers like Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Ophelia in Hamlet (1996), Winslet has steadily upped the misbehavior and moral ambiguity in subsequent homemaker roles, stretching our sympathies to fit post-postmodern sensibilities.
Little Children (2006) introduced Winslet as the New Millenium’s Woman Under the Influence with her Sarah Pierce, a begrudging mother who begins an affair with a local hunk by kissing him impetuously for a gag at the playground. Can you fault Sarah, confined to suburbia by a sudden pregnancy, for holding her touch just a little bit too long on a married man’s arm? Little Children succeeds in large part due to Winslet’s quiet, wistful depiction belying her character’s precarious position on a very fine line of morality. Only imagine what Sarah, a former literature student who scoffs at Gustave Flaubert’s misogyny at Book Club, would say to the way Adèle goes all weak in the knees when Frank unclogs her drainpipes in Labor Day (yes, this is a metaphor).
A double billing of Winslet domestics pushed her usual sympathetic presence in prestige pics over the edge in 2008. As April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, Winslet raised bloody hell for husband Frank Wheeler (played by her one true love in the nineties matinee sensation Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio. Their ingenious reunion in Sam Mendes’ film focuses attention on Winslet’s most unsavory role yet, exhibiting just how far she has come since her breakout eleven years earlier.
While the Berlin summertime setting of The Reader, released that same year, represents a slight departure from Winslet’s American mom performance, a similar confined loneliness drives her Hanna into a questionable affair with a teenage boy. Stephen Daldry’s film saddles Winslet with the solo act of pulling off all her character development in early apartment seduction scenes to carry the moral conflict for the rest of the film.
Stunningly blonde and sexually proactive, over the past decade Winslet characters have been homewreckers, depressives, and murderers, as initially magnetic as Barbra Stanwyck emerging from a rooftop sunbathing session to greet Fred MacMurray’s lusty insurance salesman in Double Indemnity. Femmes fatales updated for a more progressive era, Winslet characters drive a new model of commercial female-centered drama entirely on their own. They may darken their peaceable stretches of the surburban sidewalk, but as the performances unfold like nested Russian dolls, malicious hidden agendas combine with character development that correct noir’s distinct woman-hating vibe. Their noir undertones are what made her casting in the 2011 HBO miniseries adaptation of the genre classic Mildred Pierce (1945) so apropos.
Adèle in Labor Day, a depressive confined to her picturesque New Hampshire two-story with a neglected child, has all the trappings of another great Winslet character. But her transgression, shacking up with Frank, makes her to submit to playing the American Mom, not to acting out against it. Frank ties her up to the kitchen chair and feeds her fragrant chili for foreplay, romances her with pie-baking and baseball lessons, and cements the affair with a little home and garden TLC. Their entire relationship sets Adèle on the course to becoming a good American mom, circa 1950. Winslet’s progress towards playing complicated domestic roles backtracks right along with the retro storyline.
Labor Day has rightfully earned comparisons to ’50s melodramas and the “woman’s film,” but it recalls tropes from a few decades earlier, too. Back in the days when the unfortunate leading ladies of silent home invader fantasies like The Lodger and Caligari were not only preyed upon by the ominous men who crept into their bedrooms, but also by the sad fate of playing proxy for the movie consumer. Were the pretty face saddled with that task any but Winslet’s, maybe the saccharine romance of “Labor Day” wouldn’t strike us as so fundamentally backwards.