‘Labor Day’ is a challenging film to review. Like baking a pie, this film has many of the necessary ingredients for an enjoyable experience. Unfortunately, the story is so unbelievable that it quickly turns into a half-baked Harlequin romance. Director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) wrote the script based on the bestselling novel by Joyce Maynard. Without question, Maynard is a gifted writer and best known for her love affair with ‘Catcher in the Rye’ author J.D Salinger. In 1995, her novel ‘To Die For’ was made into a film starring Nicole Kidman that won critical acclaim. ‘Labor Day’ starts off as a tense thriller then shifts into a sappy melodrama.
The story is about Adele (Kate Winslet), a single-mother living in New Hampshire and raising her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) circa 1987. Her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg) leaves her to start a new suburban family across town. Adele has a bad case of agoraphobia so an outing to do monthly shopping is an excruciating ordeal with her son. When Frank (Josh Brolin) approaches them in the store, he asks for their help. He uses subtle threats to make his way to their car and lay low for a while at their old Victorian house. A breaking news story on television shows us that Frank is a convicted murderer on the lam.
What is a fugitive to do while hiding out from the police? Well if you’re Frank, you make chili and peach pie from scratch. At first, he gently ties up Adele with rope. The sequence has a creepy bondage feel to it. Frank must have been cellmates with Martha Stewart. He proceeds to make homemade chili and feeds Adele spoonfuls like a baby. I’m not kidding. The next morning, he makes biscuits. As Frank and Henry bond at the kitchen table, he tells his mom to try one of Frank’s biscuits. After taking that first bite, Adele is hooked. I guess the best way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach. It gets even better. The most memorable scene is when Frank teaches Adele and Henry how to make peach pie. It tries to be like the pottery scene from ‘Ghost’ but with Henry’s hands in the bowl of peaches, it takes on an oedipal complex vibe.
We get what amounts to a Lifetime TV movie due to the ridiculous premise. The story is set in a picturesque town you’d expect in a Nicholas Sparks’ film. Not a blade of grass is out of place. Kate Winslet is one of my favorite actresses and she breathes as much life into her character as she can. She gives a compelling performance of a woman whose past has left her broken. Brolin is convincing as the sensitive hunk. He becomes a father figure to Henry and teaches him how to play baseball. There is an interesting subplot between Henry and a troubled teen Eleanor (Brighid Fleming) who also comes from a broken home. A budding romance forms between the two of them. As she steals a kiss from Henry, she jokes “There, you’ll always remember me as the first girl you ever kissed.” She’s an up-and-coming actress to watch and has some of the best lines in the movie.
The story takes place over a long, hot Labor Day Weekend. Reitman reminds us of this by flashing “Friday” on the screen. The police patrol the neighborhood at night with a spotlight in the hopes of finding the escaped convict. This doesn’t prevent Frank from cleaning Adele’s gutters or fixing her back porch. You’d think he would be afraid of getting caught by the police as he shows Henry how to change a tire on the driveway. Reitman adds characters to the mix such as J.K. Simmons (Juno) as a nosy neighbor, Brooke Smith (Silence of the Lambs) and James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek) as a suspicious police officer. Unfortunately, they don’t heighten the suspense as much as Reitman intends. The story falls into a predictable conclusion as Henry grows into an adult (played by Tobey Maguire).
There’s the rub. ‘Labor Day’ is neither completely bad nor a real triumph. Reitman is a talented director that knows how to get excellent performances from his actors. It’s too bad that he is a bit out of his element with this syrupy melodrama. Check out the official trailer from Paramount Pictures http://youtu.be/eDAm-qRpkHI.