At the start of Jason Reitman’s new drama Labor Day, a mother and son are shopping when a wounded man appears, gently grabs the son by the neck and forces them to drive him to their home. Once there, he reveals himself to be an escaped convict. Yet, there’s something different about him. Initially, the mother and son are on edge but gradually, they warm up to him. The criminal, played by Josh Brolin, has real culinary skills, wants to give the boy much needed attention and mostly speaks in a kind, soft tone. The mother, played by Kate Winslet, is divorced, acknowledges the need for a father figure in her son’s life and gradually falls for her captor.
It’s one thing for Winslet’s character to experience Stockholm Syndrome. It’s another for the entire movie to ask that of its audience. This may be the gentlest film ever made about home invasion, though Reitman is less concerned with shaping a thriller than crafting an allegory for an American family.
The story takes place in 1987, around the time when divorce became a common household word, devoted to countless “After School Specials.” This unorthodox tale of a murderer on the run, who surprisingly becomes a father and husband to his prisoners, is best taken as a fable. In fact, the screenplay is based on a novel and I imagine it worked well on the written page. But on the big screen, it’s rather odd. Even if we’re supposed to be taken by Brolin’s lovable brute, there’s virtually no suspense.
Although set in the ’80s, it looks and feels like a movie taking place far earlier. The tone, lighting, art direction and visual approach reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird. Tobey Maguire narrates and has a very-brief cameo near the end; he was originally cast as the interviewer in Life of Pi before director Ang Lee edited him out, reportedly for having too distracting an appearance. That’s definitely the case here, as his voice-over is so distinct that you’re constantly reminded of the famous actor.
In his one scene as a suspicious cop, James Van Der Beek evokes more tension than Brolin’s entire performance. Both Brolin and Winslet have been much better elsewhere, as their acting here is as tonally shaky as the film overall.
Everything is so nice and reserved, psychological depth is avoided in favor of unabashed sentimentality. Romantics may disagree, but can you really root for Brolin to woo Winslet when he’s tying her up and forcing her to lie to her neighbors?
I liked the scene where the wheelchair-bound Barry is left in Winslet’s care, a sequence that develops in surprising ways. There’s also the scene where Brolin teaches Winslet and her son how to make a peach pie; aside from Waitress and The Food Channel, the making of a pie has never appeared so sensual.
We see Winslet and son go to a theater showing the 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L., despite this being a film set in 1987. Otherwise, the bathed-in-a-warm-summer-glow cinematography and art direction are lovely and convey the appropriate feelings of nostalgia.
Reitman’s previous film, Up in the Air, was smart and engrossing, where this one is a respectable, beautifully shot failure. The ending seems to indicate we were always meant to view this as a love story. If that’s the case, then this is the biggest crock of a romance since Endless Love or the entire Twilight series. Ladies, if a man holds you and your son hostage during the Labor Day weekend, even if he looks like Brolin and teaches your son how to play baseball, do not fall in love with him!
Score: ** (1-5 Star Score)