Escaped convict Josh Brolin teaches Gattlin Griffith and Kate Winslet how to make astonishing peach pie in "Labor Day." Credit: Paramount Pictures
'Labor Day' Director: Jason Reitman Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin Rating: PG-13 2 (out of 5) Globes
For the son of the guy who made “Kindergarten Cop” and “Father’s Day” (and, for the record, “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”), Jason Reitman has tried hard to show range. His style mostly reveals itself in whatever work he’s adapting, be it the broad libertarian yuks of Christopher Buckley’s “Thank You For Smoking,” the smirking whimsy of Diablo Cody’s “Juno” or the perky melancholia of Walter Kirn’s “Up in the Air.” He gets brownie points for trying full-on serious with Joyce Maynard’s novel “Labor Day,” which also requires him to ratchet up an air of sweltering, end-of-summer tension, made worse by a hostage scenario.
Then again, there aren’t many worse hostage scenarios, artistically speaking. Kate Winslet plays Adele, a jittery, vaguely unwell single mom who’s on son duty with teenaged Henry (Gattlin Griffith) when they’re held up by swarthy but hunky con Frank (Josh Brolin). Frank has escaped from prison and needs to lay low during the titular holiday weekend.
If this sounds hairy, then you can quickly rest easy. This taciturn, mumbling menace turns out to be a total teddy bear. He tends to neglected housework. He tends to neglected mom. And he makes pies — sweet, delicious, beautifully hand-crafted peach pies with crusty crusts that fill the dormant air with passion only slightly less swoony than the sweet, sweet lovin’ he gives Adele. (The film is told by the older Henry, voiced by Tobey Maguire, with nothing but fond recollection.) He’s also a convicted murderer, but there’s probably a perfectly understandable explanation for that, too, so that we have no reason to worry or, ultimately, care.
Since Reitman’s work is inextricably tied to the material he chooses, he goes down with the “Labor Day” ship. He's not the only one. Winslet tries her darndest, ratcheting up just enough tics to make Adele overly anxious but not so many that she becomes an unsightly grotesque. It’s not a great role, this stereotype of willowy, weak femininity, but she tries to give her if not dignity then a degree of craft.
It’s a lot of work for sorry returns. Winslet hasn’t been this ill-used since Alan Parker’s death penalty howler “The Life of David Gale,” or maybe even “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court.” Everyone’s on point, serving the material as best they can. But the material is so thin and, at times, giggle-worthy — so seriously does it treat its romance novel plot — that it goes from laughable to just sad. Reitman's only major artistic failure is choosing Maynard's novel at all.
Only Brolin transcends it. Frank is a not very playable creation, but he keeps him quiet and menacing even after his character is, for us if not the police, totally in the clear. This might be his simply irritation with the project, but whatever it is, he's the only thing one can appreciate free of guilt.