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LABOR DAY will leave you craving peach pie and your money back. Based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, it is a leaden piece of work whose excellent acting and evocative direction can’t overcome a dicey beginning.
Jason Reitman, he of JUNO, YOUNG ADULT, and UP IN THE AIR, directs from his own adaptation, and every image on screen swoons with the palpable sensuality of the film’s premise, a single, depressed mother who finds unexpected love, and a reason to live again when she and her 12-year-old son are kidnapped by a hunky and sensitive escaped convict. The problems start with the actual kidnapping, which happens in public, in a store with many people around. Frank (Josh Brolin), stumbles out of a back room into Henry (Gattlin Griffith) while the boy is browsing comic books and glamor magazines. Frank is bleeding. Henry is taken aback, but rather than running, or yelling for help, he takes the injured man to his mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), who promptly takes Frank through the check-out stand, into her car, and then into her home. The house is an externalization of Adele’s emotional stagnation, that’s an easy leap to make. The leap to why she allowed this to happen is a mystery never quite addressed.
There are more metaphors. Frank, despite his injury, begins to make himself useful. He repairs a stone wall. He waxes the floor. He fixes a loose step. It’s all symbolic of repairing Adele. Who has become a virtual recluse since her divorce. But it’s when she bites into the biscuit Frank has made for breakfast the next day that she falls in love. By the time the three of them get around to baking the peach pie as a family, with Frank showing Adele the finer points of crust-making by standing behind her arms through hers to manipulate the dough, the foreplay has begun in earnest, and it bears a startling resemblance to a similar one involving pottery-making in GHOST.
Winslet and Brolin make for an interesting romantic couple, she skiddish and he patient and, even after 18 years in the pokey, oddly uninterested in sex of any kind. Winslet nails Adele’s depression that puts her at a remove from the world around her, and there is something magical about the expression on her face as she bites into that biscuit. You believe a woman can fall for a man who bakes like that, at least in the abstract. One that could at any moment kill her and her child, even at that point in the film, it’s a stretch. Brolin has the right haunted quality as flashbacks reveal what sent him to prison. Lipinski, as the boy on the cusp of discovering his sexuality, and being mightily confused by it, has the gravitas proper to a boy who has for all practical purposes been the parent to his mother for several years. That’s especially true in a disturbing scene of him and Adele in a hammock as she disrespects boundaries and insists on telling him about the tactile longings of passion.
Reitman infuses every moment with that feeling, from the way a crust slowly browns in an over, to the way Frank ties Adele to a chair so that the kidnapping story will fly with the authorities. The camera lingers, caresses, and focuses with an interest at once tender and prurient.
And yet it never quite works. Taking place in a small New Hampshire village over the long Labor Day weekend, the telescoping of time, the urgency of eluding the authorities and inconvenient neighbors, the growing affection proving itself to be something other than loneliness combined with lust fails to ignite. That and Frank’s penchant for hanging out by windows where he can be seen from the street ring an inauthentic, even silly, note.
One the plus side, there are tips for making terrific chili (cocoa and coffee) and a master-class in pie-making to prevent LABOR DAY from being a total waste of time and talent. If only they could have also shown us how to make those biscuits.