Fast-forward six months, and "Labor Day" suddenly looks like an afterthought, dumped unceremoniously at the end of the dumping ground that is January. Having failed to secure any Oscar nominations or much appreciation among critics, it opened this weekend opposite the Super Bowl and another romance-minded film ("That Awkward Moment"). Pundits predicted a weak opening of around $7 or $8 million, but it earned only an estimated $5.3 million. Debuting in seventh place, the movie seems to have little hope of recouping even the modest $18 million it reportedly cost to make.
What went wrong? A number of things it turned out, starting with the initial unavoidable catastrophe:
People saw it: The movie debuted in September at the Toronto Film Festival, which is not only a frequent launching pad for awards hopefuls, but is also director Reitman's hometown. Even there, however, the film failed to find a receptive audience. Critics who saw it in Toronto were either baffled or disappointed. Very quickly, the movie and its performances dropped off of Oscar experts' shortlists.
It starred who?: Kate Winslet may be one of the most beloved and acclaimed actresses of her generation, but the Oscar-winning star is not a box office draw. Neither is Josh Brolin. In fact, each of them appeared in one of the biggest flops of 2013 -- Winslet as part of the ensemble cast of sketch comedy omnibus "Movie 43," and Brolin as the star of Spike Lee's remake of "Oldboy." Not that Winslet or Brolin bears responsibility for those box office disasters, but neither was enough of a draw to pull his or her movie out of the cellar, either.
The director stretched too far: Critics encourage artists to grow and to work outside of their comfort zones, but they're also quick to smack artists down when such experimentation doesn't work. In Reitman's case, he was known for satirical comedies with an occasional dark dramatic edge ("Juno," "Up in the Air," "Young Adult"). A strictly dramatic movie like "Labor Day" was the logical next step, but, according to critics, it was too big a leap, and he fell on his face.
Mixed marketing messages: Initially, Paramount was selling the movie as a romantic thriller. (Brolin's escaped convict holes up in single mom WInslet's bucolic house, and she and her son get a serious case of Stockholm syndrome and come to care for the fugitive.) The initial marketing material showed Brolin with his arm around Winslet's neck, somewhere between an embrace and a headlock. But after the initial critical rejection, Paramount softened the marketing to make the movie appear to be more of a romantic drama. Much has been made of the movie's pie-baking scene, in which the rolling of dough and slicing of peaches serves as sublimation and foreplay à la the pottery-making scene in "Ghost." That gives the movie a great hook for the morning talk shows and their housewife audiences, but it also suggests that the pie scene has been played up so much because the movie offers little else to chew on.
The critical consensus: When the rest of the critics who hadn't been to Toronto finally saw "Labor Day" in December, most agreed with the initial dismissal of the movie. The film scored a dismal 46 percent fresh among reviewers cited by Rotten Tomatoes. As a result, the movie made few year-end best lists. Unfortunately for the film, it was dependent upon an older audience of moviegoers who still care what critics think.
The Oscar shutout: Just because the critics didn't like it didn't mean the Academy would disown the film, but they did. It got no Oscar nominations -- another critical publicity tool for the movie's target demographic -- and only one Golden Globe nod, for Winslet's performance.
The timing: After the movie's brief limited-release Oscar-qualifying run in December failed to secure any nominations, what was Paramount to do for the wide release? Super Bowl weekend must have seemed like a good wide-release date initially, with "Labor Day" serving as smart, female-oriented counterprogramming to the testosterone fest on TV. Unfortunately, there was another romance-themed movie this weekend, Zac Efron's "That Awkward Moment," which opened in third place with an estimated $9.1 million. Granted, "Moment" seemed targeted more toward women under 25, while "Labor Day" was chasing women over 25. Then again, a lot of those women are moms, and many of them apparently spent this weekend taking the kids to see "Frozen" for the umpteenth time. The 11-week-old Disney cartoon finished in second place, ahead of both newcomers, with an estimated $9.3 million.
The word-of-mouth: Regular moviegoers who finally got to weigh in on "Labor Day" this weekend didn't think much of it. According to CinemaScore, they gave the film a B-, which is pretty lackluster by the generous standards of CinemaScore.
Paramount did still try to treat the movie like a prestige release, with plenty of advertising and a release on 2,584 screens; they didn't bury it unceremoniously on 583 screens as FilmDistrict did with Brolin's "Oldboy." Nonetheless, Paramount's efforts may have been more out of duty than confidence in the film's prospects. It's as if they were still carefully crafting a peach pie as dessert for guests who were never going to show up for dinner.