By Kyle Osborne
Author Nicholas Sparks has had eight of his best-selling novels adapted into mostly silly and subpar movies (Please, fans of “The Notebook,” no nasty letters) with two more in the works for this year and next.
The new movie “Labor Day” wasn’t written by Sparks, but it looks and feels a lot like one of his joints. Only it’s actually better. In the hands of director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In The Air) the sugary goop is dialed back a notch, but the narrative still plays like a paperback romance novel. If Sparks had written this, it would have been entitled, “The Sweetest Stockholm Syndrome.” Reitman’s take is more like, “How I Got A Woman To Fall In Love With Me By Cleaning The House and Baking A Peach Pie From Scratch.” It also gleefully rips off shades of “Shane,” the 1953 Western.
The first thing the film gets right is its narrator: As told by 13-year-old Henry Wheeler ( a terrific Gattlin Griffith) the story is instantly grounded, as opposed to having things told by one of the grown-ups in a gauze-y flashback. Henry and his Mother (Kate Winslet) are alone and somewhat isolated, his Dad having left them for a new family and greener pastures. It’s up to Henry to keep things together, since Mom is obviously suffering from depression and, possibly, agoraphobia. While the two of them are out shopping for school clothes (it’s the Friday before Labor day) a man who is bleeding from a stomach wound accosts Henry and convinces him to get Mom to drive him back to their house, where he can heal.
In one of the creakier plot points, the man (Josh Brolin) is an escaped convict, and he doesn’t want to hurt anybody, he just wants to lay low until the heat is off—then he’ll leave. Promise! This house will be the perfect place to hide. And, true to the title, the stay will last about as long as the holiday weekend, but memories will last a lifetime, etc., etc.
What follows is where we start to tread into the aforementioned Romance Novel territory. It turns out that the “prisoners” actually like their “captor.” Not least because he turns out to be the best handy-man you’ve ever seen. Before long, he’s hammering and nailing and fixing squeaky hinges. Plus he plays catch with the kid. He's like the perfect Dad and husband. And then?
Well, then he takes his talents to the kitchen, where he bakes a peach pie that is photographed in that special way that gave rise to the now overused term, “Food Porn.” You can practically feel the temperature in the theater go up, and it probably is the collective lust for the baked good, and not the sensual play of the characters that is responsible for the “mood change.”
Many will see that scene as silly—and Reitman is smart enough to present it so that his audience can either swoon or smirk—it’s not that he isn’t aware of some of the romantic excesses—he’s just cool with it.
And so was I. There’s something kind of refreshingly old fashioned and low-key about the film—even when it’s at its most melodramatic, it never gets hysterical. It’s not a film for the ages, but it’s a good cast and a decent diversion during these dark days of Winter.
Two and a Half out of Four Stars. “Labor Day” is Rated PG-13