“Labor Day” is a generic slab of escapist romantic Velveeta from, of all people, sharp-witted Jason Reitman.
This insipidly sentimental, hopelessly hokey entry sits uneasily beside his earlier films. “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult” were sardonic dramas that made uncompromising fun of modern life. Whether the subject was political lobbying, teen pregnancy or corporate downsizing, Reitman’s films were calculated to ruffle orthodox feathers.
Accuse him of what you will, he’s been innocent of sentimentality. Here, working from Joyce Maynard’s novel, he delivers a Harlequin-level potboiler so shameless it would make Nicholas Sparks blush.
A dejected single mom named Adele (Kate Winslet) falls for a brawny, dangerous stranger named Frank (Josh Brolin). It’s 1987, and Adele’s son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), narrates with insights more apt for a middle-aged lady novelist than a hormonal 13-year-old. “I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart, but rather losing love itself,” he observes. He gives her homemade gift coupons for his services as Husband-for-a-Day. As 13-year-old boys do.
Adele is so emotionally fragile she can scarcely put her car in gear for their monthly supply trip to the discount store. Cut to a close-up of her trembling hands. It’s there that Frank appears before Henry as in a vision, quietly insisting that he and his mom drive him somewhere so he can tend a suspicious-looking stomach wound. Frank’s hushed persuasion, polite with undertones of threat, convinces her to obey. He gruffly directs the pair to take him to their home and more or less takes them prisoner for the Labor Day weekend.
It’s not the usual meet-cute where a couple bump heads in a taxi they both think they hailed, but thus are surrogate father and surrogate family introduced. A TV report reveals that Frank is an escaped con. In fact, a murderer. But a very hunky one, so perhaps it’s all a misunderstanding? Illogically, Frank’s own flashbacks of the fateful day work their way into Henry’s telling of the story.