Romance movies do not need to be bad. They really don’t. The goal is to show two people falling in love and the struggles that entails, and if a movie develops its leads appropriately there’s potential for on-screen chemistry to be put on display and allow an audience to experience their passion vicariously. Labor Day doesn’t do any of that, and it falls into the same trap that many love stories do. That is to say that it thinks that it will carry its audience by virtue of the fact that there is a romance happening, but there just isn’t enough going on in this film to justify its two hours of runtime.
Adele is a depressed recluse who lives with her preteen son, Henry. Frank is an escaped convict looking for a place to lie low. Frank isn’t that bad of a guy though, and after taking residence in Adele and Henry’s home to lie low for a while, Adele and Frank grow closer over the course of the Labor Day weekend. This, my friends, is the schlock that romance novels are made of. Adele is a modern day damsel in distress, and her dragon is her struggle with depression and anxiety. Frank is the rugged and dangerous outsider that has come into her life to set things right, and the language of romance is spoken through household chores and supposedly shocking sentimentality. Let’s ignore for a second that the message of this film is that this woman just needs a man in her life to make everything better. What this film fails to address is the fact that Frank really does kidnap Adele and Henry at the beginning of the movie, and everything that happens from then onward could easily be explained as Stockholm Syndrome rather than romance. That would be much more believable than what supposedly passes for love in such a short timeframe.
See, I could perhaps forgive the entirely problematic premise if the acting carried the film at all. With the exception of a couple side characters, almost everyone in this film displays the acting ability of wooden puppets. Nobody emotes; they just say their lines and perform the actions necessary as their almighty lord The Script tells them to. I can’t believe any of the drama that the film tries to push on us because I don’t believe that the characters are real. All the actors display this solemnity to them that encompasses their entire being. They don’t appear to feel, and as a romance film, this kills any chance the film had at being good.
Furthermore, somewhere in here is a coming-of-age story about Henry, as most of the film takes place from his perspective. However, the film seems so confused about what it’s trying to say that I have no idea what to make of it. There’s some stuff about sexual discovery and about being jealous of the new man in his mom’s life, as well as some demonstration of how Frank is a better father than Henry’s actual father. But what are we supposed to take away from this subplot? I have no idea. There’s no point at which Henry pulls any of these threads together to make a cohesive moment of development, and so we as the audience are left to let those threads dangle.
I will admit that the climax of the film does contain some genuinely tense moments, but for all the emotionless and boring tripe you have to wade through to get to that point, I can’t say that it’s at all worth the wait. There are much better romantic films out there, if only because they actually convey human emotion. Don’t waste your time on these robots.
Can you think of any romance films that transcend the romance-for-romance’s-sake formula? My review of In Your Eyes is a great example, but I’d like to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments below.