“Labor Day” Movie Review

     On paper, Jason Reitman’s new film “Labor Day” has the look of a serious awards contender, featuring a cast that includes Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin and Reitman himself with the screenplay adaptation and in the director’s chair.  With solid credits that include “Juno”, “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult”, Reitman is certainly the right talent to bring Joyce Maynard’s novel to the screen, having already shown the ability to combine adult drama with teen angst in his previous efforts.  “Labor Day” is set on that holiday weekend in 1987 and the production design is chalk full of reminders of the era.  Who knew people my age now have to realize filmmakers are creating “period” films taking place in the 80s where viewing them shows us how much has changed in the way we live.

     Adele (Kate Winslet) is a depressed and divorced single mother of one, living in a small New Hampshire home with only her son to occupy her.  She’s become a loner, unwilling to socialize or leave the house, which makes tasks such as driving her run down station wagon to do monthly grocery shopping difficult and challenging.  Her hands shake uncontrollably and she is clearly holding on by way of the love she has for her son, just like any mother would.  At 13 years old, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) is quite mature for his age and has taken on the role left empty by his father, Gerald (Clark Gregg).  The opening scenes are narrated by the adult version of Henry, played by Toby Maguire, and detail the lengths Henry goes each day to help Adele stay afloat mentally.  He tells us of his disdain for his father, who remarried and has since had another child with his step mother.  He has dinner with his father once a week, but prefers to stay with his mother the rest of the time to avoid having to compete for attention from his father, who now must juggle a new wife, a stepson, and a new child.

     Henry’s room looks not unlike the room I grew up in in the same time period.  The walls are adorn with posters of “E.T.” and “The Empire Strikes Back” and the floor is cluttered with “Star Wars” action figures.  Henry’s situation shows Reitman was likely influenced here by several Spielberg films, which had a common trait of divorced parents and the story being told from the child’s point of view. It’s probably no coincidence Henry and his mother are shown watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” on television, only in this story; however, there is no monster or alien in a space ship.  Instead, Frank (Josh Brolin) is introduced during one of those infrequent shopping trips when he approaches Henry at the store’s comic stand and asks for a ride.

     We learn Frank has served 18 years in prison for the murder of his wife and has managed to escape after having an appendectomy in a local hospital.  He’s hobbled after having jumped from a second story window and he’s bleeding from his surgical wound, which makes his situation all the more dire.  He confronts Adele in the store with Henry and through intimidation, convinces her to take him to their house and allow him to hide for the night.  This sequence happens early in the film and the scenes before it are dedicated to showing us how vulnerable and fragile Adele is, so there is plausibility of a stranger strong arming her and her son, but you have to wonder why they didn’t just run or scream.  The attention would’ve likely caused Frank to hightail it right out of the store and find another way to get out of town.  Reitman tries to create a mood of dread and intensity with a brooding music score and several uncomfortably silent scenes in the store parking lot and during the ride home with each serving it’s purpose if only the film’s tone didn’t change after.

     Little does Adele and Henry know, Frank is one domesticated creature, especially for having served the last 18 years of his life in prison.  From the get go, he creates a pot of chili from ingredients laying around in the kitchen and then proceeds to clean the house, fix Adele’s car, and teach Henry how to throw a curve and swing a bat.  It’s as if his life’s dream was to have this type of experience and with perhaps only days of freedom, he intends on squeezing everything he can out of his new found temporary family.  Keep in mind, he has forced the issue and yet after only a day, both Adele and Henry seem to accept Frank.  No scene in the film exacerbates this more than what is sure to become know as the infamous pie making scene.  When a neighbor drops off a bucket of peaches from his tree, Frank decides to give the group a lesson in pie making.  This includes an inadvertent homage to the “Ghost” pottery scene in which Frank and Adele sink their hands into a giant bowl of cut peaches and sugary mixture in an effort to combine all of the ingredients.  Of courseas they do so they look at each other in “that way” which is intended for the audience to see she is falling in love with him, her captor, after less than 48 hours of knowing him.  The third act sends the film into a vortex of implausible ideas where virtually no one in the film makes decisions with that of a sound mind.

     In the end, “Labor Day” is a film where you watch it and you just don’t buy it.  You get the idea Adele, with all of the love she has for Henry, would never endanger him by falling in love with an escaped convict, not to mention one who has essentially kidnapped them.  Flashback scenes throughout attempt to both exude the human qualities of Frank and his ordeal with his former wife and son as well as the regrets of Adele in her previous marriage.  None of these scenes really add up to the decisions made late in the film with the exception of Frank who couldn’t possibly turn down the chance to have a normal life again, even though he would have to question the circumstances and the ease of which he came by them.  Jason Reitman is a fine writer/director, but this latest offering makes little sense and doesn’t seem to fall in line with his established style at all. GRADE: C-