“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.
The film’s middle passage suggests a kinky divorcee’s “Beauty and the Beast” fantasy. While Frank’s slab-of-beef masculinity has a threatening, titillating edge — he ties his half-willing accessory Adele to a chair to “keep up appearances” if the police arrive — his only desire is to heal this emotional basket case. He cooks her a blue-ribbon chili and spoon-feeds her, tenderly blowing each bite cool first as if she were an infant in a highchair. Let the trust-building and heart-fluttering begin.
Soon — absurdly soon — Adele is won over by Frank’s take-charge machismo and Olympic-level housekeeping skills. As if he’d been dreaming of nothing but chores in prison, Frank tackles a honey-do list that would exhaust Hercules. He cleans the gutters, chops wood, re-mortars the home’s foundation, teaches Hank to throw a baseball, repairs the car and bakes breakfast muffins that leave her agog. And he finds time to give a young disabled neighbor the best afternoon of his life. As escaped convicts do.
He fixes Adele’s furnace and, if that nod to her erotic reawakening is too subtle, he gets his hands all slick and juicy making Adele a peach pie. “The filling is easy. I want to talk about crust,” he says. Huskily, Adele observes, “There’s another kind of hunger. A hunger for human touch.” Cut to shot of pie oozing in the oven.
Frank proves handy in the boudoir as well. He’s the perfect fantasy man. Best of all, unlike Adele’s remarried ex-husband (Clark Gregg), Frank can’t leave.
But they can all leave together, traveling as a family to the Canadian border. As neighbors drop by and plot tripwires fire, questions of Frank’s innocence are implausibly resolved en route to an ending more sugar-sweet and gooey than Frank’s pie.
I recently saw a movie about a man falling in love with his computer operating system. It was more believable than this.