As escaped convicts go, Frank (Josh Brolin) is a pretty great guy. Sure, he may take you hostage, threaten you and your child and strongarm his way into your house (without a weapon, and we’ll get to that later). But he’ll also change the oil in the car, repair the squeaky door and the wobbly step and teach your shy son how to change a tire, throw a baseball and make a mean peach pie, lessons that will carry him manfully through his adult life.
Also, and this is not incidental, Frank is brooding and sexy, especially in a blood-spattered tight white T shirt. Which bodes well for Mom.
If you can get past the ludicrous fantasy — well, wait, that’s the problem. You can’t get past the ludicrous fantasy. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is romantic blarney on a grand scale — even though it tries to be a tight, tense, profound movie about sexual awakening and responsibility. But the tension comes and goes and is sometimes teased out awkwardly; the profundity is forced; and the script is so far-fetched that even Kate Winslet can’t do much with it.
Adapted and directed by Jason Reitman, who usually chooses much better material (Up in the Air, Juno, Young Adult), the film focuses on a Very Special Labor Day weekend in 1987 for young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) and his depressed, divorced mother Adele (Winslet). The adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) narrates the story of how his father (Clark Gregg) left and remarried and how his mother has never really been the same since.
Then one day, while Henry is out shopping for new school clothes, a sweaty man walks up to him in the store and asks for a ride. Henry, who is heading into seventh grade but unaware of stranger danger, dutifully brings the man to Adele. Turns out the stranger named Frank (Brolin) wants a ride and wants it now. The power of his menacing stare is too intense to resist. Confronted, Adele wilts, though one scream would end the whole thing right then and there, and so Frank gets his ride to Adele’s house.
Frank says he’ll leave as soon as darkness falls, only he doesn’t, and Adele, who has been without a man too long, finds herself drawn to him. Over the course of the weekend they grow close, and Henry begins to feel longings himself — and then starts to wonder if their murmured plans include him.
Labor Day is the sort of movie where the characters are all extremely watchful: They shoot worried glances at each other but don’t demonstrate much good sense. If you chose to harbor a fugitive murderer, wouldn’t you lock the front door so that your nosy neighbors couldn’t just barge in? Would you maybe dance in the dark instead of in front of the screen door illuminated by the soft glow of lights? Would you order your son to visit the smalltown library on a Sunday to investigate escape routes, when a library almost certainly wouldn’t be open?
Reitman does get a few things right: He teases out Frank’s backstory in an evocative way, and the family pie-making scene is rich and sensual. Brolin and Winslet work up an acceptable amount of heat. But Labor Day never becomes more than an unlikely and belabored melodrama; it’s not the sweeping, fervent statement about love that its makers intended.
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, Tobey Maguire.
Writer/director: Jason Reitman. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard.
Producers: Helen Estabrook, Lianne Halfon, Jason Reitman, Russell Smith.
A Paramount Studios release. Running time: 111 minutes. Thematic material, brief violence, sexuality. Playing at: area theaters.