Review: Labor Day
PLOT: An emotionally fragile single mother and her son are taken hostage by a wounded escaped convict. A decent man at heart, the convict gradually inserts himself into their lives and changes them both for the better.
REVIEW: If you like your soap operas sincere and sentimental, then LABOR DAY is for you. Resembling a slightly more adult version of one of those Nicholas Sparks affairs, Jason Reitman's adaptation of Joyce Maynard's popular novel keeps a somber straight face throughout even the most groan-worthy material. It could be said sometimes that I'm a cynical bastard, and a movie like this certainly wasn't made for me, but I'm not immune to the power of a good melodrama. LABOR DAY is not quite bad - it doesn't reach the hilarious levels of idiocy as most of Sparks' movies do - though it does have quite a few unintentional chuckles and "oh c'mon!" moments.
You may have already heard or read about the pie. If not, let me tell you that a peach pie is the centerpiece of the strangest head-slapper of a sequence in the film. Agoraphobic single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Hank (Gattlin Griffin) have been kidnapped, more or less, by gentle escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin), who needs a place to hang out while he recuperates from a stomach wound. He's barely been there a day before he's playing Man of the House and Surrogate Father Figure, his rugged yet soothing manliness quickly overpowering any qualms Adele and Hank might have about letting an alleged murderer wander around their house. He starts fixing things, shows Hank how to throw a baseball, clears out the gutters. He can also cook. (Swooooon - am I right ladies?) The man whips up a good chili, but he's got an absolute killer peach pie recipe.
So in a scene that might be dubbed "Baking Your Pains Away," Frank, Adele and Hank start mushing up peaches in a bowl together and making crust for the pie so lovingly it's tantamount to Food Erotica. (Maybe a late night spinoff channel for the Food Network?) Their hands coming together, kneeding the peaches in exquisite tenderness, the scene very unsubtly implies this pie is healing their gaping emotional wounds and forging their destinies. The capper is when Adele, her hands shaking while holding the crust, unsure if she can get it just right over the ready-and-waiting pie, finds her courage after Frank says "Help me put a roof on this house."
It's a pie, folks. It's not going to be yummy enough to bring back the dead or repair your shattered pasts.
That scene takes the, um, cake, but the film is filled with heavy-handed symbolism and lines of maudlin double-meaning. Winslet and Brolin power through it like pros, settling early on their default personas: Winslet is worried but strong, Brolin is brooding but sensitive. They don't embarrass themselves despite the plethora of clunkers they're given to say ("People buy all these fancy gadgets, but sometimes the best tool is attached to your body") and the many longing stares, but neither is able to elevate the material beyond its sappy foundation. Gattlin Griffin seems like a nice enough kid, but he's unfortunately fairly one-note throughout the film.
LABOR DAY paints its characters in patently ridiculous ways that directly challenge our ability to suspend disbelief; Frank is a wanted man, but he has no problem standing on a ladder outside of the house or changing a tire in the driveway for all the world to see. He often says he's been falsely convicted of his crime, yet neither Adele nor Hank ever even seem interested in what it is he's done. Is Adele such a tragic, emotionally unstable wilting flower her desperation for a man - any man - blows away all logic? In Maynard's view (and subsequently Reitman's), the answer is yes. You have to be sympathetic to Adele's situation (flashbacks reveal that her fragile statue is fairly well earned), but the story does her absolutely no favors by failing to give her a backbone. She's little more than a protagonist in a tawdry romance novel, waiting for big hunky man to make her feel like a woman again.
This is an interesting choice for Reitman. Clearly he wanted to move outside of his comfort zone; dark comedies like JUNO, UP IN THE AIR and YOUNG ADULT smartly combined their drama with wit and cynicism. LABOR DAY is aiming for bleak seriousness, almost akin to the Rock Hudson dramas of the 1940s, and Reitman can't tackle the admittedly tricky challenge of giving this sentimental mush the air of respectability he thinks it deserves. In fact, it could have used a bit of that edge he's capable of infusing his movies with; if nothing else, LABOR DAY needs to crack a smile once in a while.