It sounds like one of those Garry Marshall, every-holiday-is-a-movie extravaganzas a la “New Year’s Eve” and “Valentine’s Day.”
Or maybe a screwball romantic comedy with, say, Katherine Heigl as a harried obstetrician.
Neither of those would necessarily be better than what writer-director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”) has come up with, but they’d certainly be more interesting.
Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, “Labor Day” opens on the Thursday of the long Labor Day weekend in 1987 with divorcee Adele (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), venturing out of their ramshackle New Hampshire house for their monthly supply run to the Pricemart.
Adele had a nervous breakdown some years back, around the time Henry’s dad (Clark Gregg) ran off with his secretary, and, among her other issues, she’s developed a crippling case of agoraphobia.
As a result, Henry’s done his best to assume the role of the man of the house. To cheer her up, he’ll present her with a “Husband for a Day” coupon book, redeemable for such services as shoulder rubs, bubble baths and a “date” to the movies. They’re also shown sharing a hammock while Adele wistfully informs Henry about desire and the “hunger for human touch.”
Everyone involved seems oblivious to the fact that, during scenes like those, “Labor Day” stumbles dangerously close to David O. Russell’s 1994 debut, “Spanking the Monkey.” Either that or they’re all just willfully ignoring the creepiness.
Meanwhile, back at the Pricemart, Henry’s looking at comic books when a stranger (Josh Brolin) emerges from the stockroom, with a limp and blood seeping from his abdomen, asking for a ride. When that doesn’t work, he intimidates Adele into giving him one. To her house.
Once there, the intruder, who introduces himself as Frank, insists he’ll leave just as soon as he rests his leg for a bit. But first, he gingerly ties Adele to a chair “to keep up appearances.” Before long, he’s spoon-feeding her some beef-onion-and-coffee concoction he whipped up in the kitchen, and Adele’s terror gives way to something far more complicated.
Frank, they’ll come to learn, was serving 18 years for murder when he jumped out of a hospital’s second-story window. But Adele just seems happy to have a real, bona fide man-with-a-capital-M around the house.
By Day Two, she’s falling asleep in Frank’s arms. By Monday, the three of them are packing up to move to Canada as a family.
If nothing else, “Labor Day” will give you a new appreciation for the work of Nicholas Sparks.
Winslet and Brolin are immensely talented, and they do what they can with what they’ve been given, but shockingly little of what transpires feels real.
Frank’s escape is all over the news. State and local police are patrolling neighborhoods, setting up roadblocks and stapling wanted posters to trees. There’s even a $10,000 reward for his capture. Yet Frank doesn’t exactly keep out of sight. He cheerfully cleans the gutters, changes the oil in their Family Truckster-looking wagon, teaches Henry to play baseball in the yard, tenderly cares for a severely disabled family friend and settles in for quiet moments with Adele in the porch swing.
Frank and Adele clearly, desperately need each other, and Frank is forever finding new reasons to have his arms around her. In “Labor Day’s” signature scene, he teaches Adele and Henry to bake a peach pie, with Frank and Adele’s hands intertwining as they work the dough. It’s the culinary equivalent of the pottery scene from “Ghost.” The problem is, THAT’S the movie’s signature scene. More time is dedicated to that silly pie than on establishing any semblance of dramatic tension.
And it can’t be stressed enough how absurdly fast their relationship develops. To be kind, it’s far-fetched. To be otherwise, it feels like the generic, pent-up daydreams of a frustrated, perpetually single romantacist — or the setup for an extremely chaste porno.
Henry’s interactions with a precocious new girl in town (Brighid Fleming) inject some offbeat energy into the mix, but they stand out primarily because Brolin and Winslet sleepwalk through too much of the movie.
A series of often-disorienting flashbacks leading up to Frank’s crime only add to the frustration.
Yes, it’s called “Labor Day.” But watching a movie teeming with this much talent should never feel this laborious.
Contact Christopher Lawrence at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4567.