There's this one crucial scene in Jason Reitman's Labor Day when an escaped convict played by Josh Brolin, kidnaps a mother and her son but wins over their hearts with chili and peach cobbler. Oh wait, that's the entire movie and it's pretty damned sad and awful, an unintentionally misogynistic joke whose point seems to be that lonely women should go out and screw the first violent offender they can find. It's especially disappointing since Reitman has shown a greater handle on balancing the tragic with a measure of dark humor, and because it stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, neither of whom seem to realize just how ridiculous they look taking this so seriously.
Having never read Joyce Maynard's novel that Reitman is basing this on, it's impossible to say whether it's as laughable as the adaptation, but one has to assume it is. It treads on the same treacly territory as the worst of Nicholas Sparks, and features a stunning lack of urgency that leaves the film as dull as it is preposterous. Set in melancholic 1986, Winslet plays the clinically-depressed Adele, who can barely function in the wake of her divorce. She can't even be bothered to leave the house except to get groceries once a month, and when she does the nervous shakes in her hand tell all. Her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is a quiet sort, and has learned to become the new man of the house. One scene, meant to be heartfelt but is really just creepy, has him agreeing to be "husband for a day", doing all the things a man would do around the house....until he realizes he's unequipped for what Adele really needs. In short: she's horny, and the film dances around the subject like the audience are a bunch of children with virgin ears.
During one rare excursion to a shopping mall, Henry is approached by Frank (Brolin), a bleeding man who insists on being given a ride. The threat of violence forces Adele to give in and drive him to their home, but fortunately he turns out to be an ex-con.....with a heart of pure gold! Yay! It helps that he looks like Josh Brolin because that makes it easier to swallow when Frank becomes the husband and father they've been waiting for. Why, the guy is like Bobby Flay and Mr. Fix-It all wrapped into one. Soon he's fixing them breakfast, baking pies, and (in a purely non-sexual way) checking the pipes and clearing the gutters. Oh screw it, it's totally sexual. Every now and then he's forced to tie them up, like when friends (played by the woefully underused JK Simmons and Brooke Smith) drop by unexpectedly. Not that being reminded they are being held hostage matters because Adele needs a manly touch and Henry needs someone to play catch with.
Draped in dreariness and angst, the film is also weighed down by ponderous narration courtesy of Tobey Maguire as the older Henry. Basically he's there to reminisce happily about those days when his family was held hostage and forced to become a semblance of a family. Yeah, it's as absurd as it sounds, paying some sort of weird homage to Stockholm Syndrome victims everywhere. And yet, as the film grows sillier, it still remains fairly predictable in attempts to forgive these unbelievably misguided characters. Adele's ex-husband (Clark Gregg) turns out to be a jerk, and Frank's crime involves the death of his cheating wife. So she must have deserved it and that makes Frank a perfectly suitable suitor.
Winslet and Brolin sell the heck out of this thing, though, and their passion at least feels genuine even if nothing else does. She seems to be walking in much the same desperate territory as in Little Children, while he's clearly been reading from the Bridges of Madison County playbook. Abridged version.
Considering the hot start to Reitman's career with Juno and Up in the Air, the lack of attention paid to Young Adult was a bit surprising. But Labor Day is a contrived weeper nobody will consider while it's here, and few will remember when it's gone.