Now in his 30's, Henry Wheeler (Tobey Maguire) remembers a long weekend in 1987 when an escaped convict, Frank (Josh Brolin), forcefully asked for his and his mother Adele's (Kate Winslet) help and in return forever changed their lives that "Labor Day."
In his four movies to date, writer/director Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Up in the Air") has leaned on cynicism, comedy and satire as a route to human emotion. In adapting Joyce Maynard's romantic coming of age drama, Reitman attempts a serious change of tone and fumbles. It's a shame because Brolin and especially Winslet invest their characters with tragic pasts which have scarred their present psyches and their chemistry is strong. But Reitman's handling of certain story elements, particularly regarding the revelation of Frank's crime, as well as an overall sloppiness in story logic, prove fatal.
Reitman is apparently enamored of Maguire's narration, as much of the early goings of the film are told to us. We learn that the 13 year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith, "The Changeling") lives with his agoraphobic mom, running her errands, the man of the house. They live in a picture postcard ramshackle farm house in picturesque Holton Mills (actually Acton and Shelburne Falls, MA) where Adele teaches her son how to dance (a firm hand on the back) and he makes her 'Husband For a Day' coupon books, ickily noting there are some duties he cannot fulfill.
On a hot late summer day, Henry convinces his mother to go shopping as he needs new clothes for school. Winslet, with a constant sheen of sweat on her face, conveys a perpetual state of controlled panic when out of her house, even behind the wheel of her car. As she grips the handle of a shopping cart, Henry wanders off to peruse the comic book rack and that's when Frank appears from behind an employee door with what appears to be a gunshot wound in his side (it's not, but it's an early indication of Reitman's over compensation and storytelling confusion). Henry, shown as having been so protective of his mother, goes along a little too easily with what is clearly trouble, yet Brolin does do a good job of treading a line between intimidation and trustworthiness.
Back at the house, Frank indicates he intends to jump the next train out of town, but breaking newscasts are already alerting the entire town of Holton Mills that an escaped murderer may be in their midst. Frank ties up Adele to ensure her noncomplicity, then cooks up a batch of chili which he spoon feeds her. Then a neighbor, Mr. Jervis (J.K. Simmons, "Spider-Man," "Juno"), arrives to check on Adele and deliver a basket of peaches and leaves not quite satisfied with Henry's cover story. Adele lays down the law that Frank may not use her son as part of his plan. Now that all three have shown their hands - Frank's care for his hostess, Henry's cover for Frank and Adele's maternal priorities - the three set about housekeeping.
As Frank becomes cook, baker, mechanic, handyman and dance partner, Reitman moves the story backwards and forwards with three separate devices. Flashbacks begin to tell the younger Frank's (Tom Lipinski, TV's 'Suits') story as a soldier who marries his pregnant sweetheart Mandy (Maika Monroe, "At Any Price"). Frank's stumbling upon a family photo album depicting a heavily pregnant Adele with the young Henry begins to reveal her past. Meanwhile, Henry meets young punk out-of-towner Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), whose questions give Henry doubts (but not that many). While Adele's back story makes some sort of sense, Frank's is told so ham handedly, rather than provoke sympathy its implications are horrifying. Meanwhile Henry meets Eleanor at the library on a *Sunday* to continue their unconvincing relationship. And if I followed Reitman's time line correctly, he also places Adele in the bank on the titular holiday. There are some nice refrains - Frank's hand on Adele's back, Henry's following of Frank's motto that the truth can be disarming - but there are also sledgehammer moments, such as neighbor Evelyn's (Brooke Smith, "The Silence of the Lambs") shocking behavior towards her disabled son, used to underline how good Frank is with kids or Henry's fateful trip to leave a letter for dad Gerald (Clark Gregg, "The Avengers") that just as easily could have been safely mailed. The infamous pie baking scene, which plays much like the pot throwing in "Ghost," might have worked between Frank and Adele, but Henry's additional hands literally in the mix is ludicrous overkill. Rolfe Kent's beautiful score, all tense undercurrents with gentle top notes, hints at what might have been. Perhaps Reitman should have studied how Clint Eastwood transformed similar material with "The Bridges of Madison County" into something quite beautiful.
Robin also gives "Labor Day" a C.
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