The year is 1987, but it feels more like 1957. The place is New England, but it could be any anonymous American suburb. At a local convenience store, depressed single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), cross paths with Frank (Josh Brolin), a mysterious stranger who demands—gently, almost politely, but he isn’t asking—that the two shelter him from the searching gaze of the law. Frank, it turns out, is an escaped convict, and for a few fleeting minutes, Labor Day throbs with danger. But the noir setup is a red herring: Down a long and winding country road, in a house Norman Rockwell might splash onto a canvas, this unwanted houseguest shows his true colors. He’s no menace, but rather the surrogate husband and father his captives have been waiting for. Soon, Frank is mopping the floor, fixing the squeak in the front door, and—in the most howlingly funny seduction scene in recent memory—sensually squashing peaches into pie filling, his mad baking skills an irresistible aphrodisiac for the lonely divorcée putting him up.
Improbably, this saccharine melodrama comes courtesy of Jason Reitman, the Hollywood scion director who made Juno and Up In The Air. Clearly, he’s chasing a change of pace, a hard right turn away from the sardonic redemption stories that have previously sported his byline and into the unfamiliar realm of Sirksian soap. But Labor Day, drawn from the pages of a Joyce Maynard bestseller, is a major miscalculation. Narrated by young Henry, despite the fact that he’s not privy to every plot turn or conversation, the film awkwardly hybridizes its influences; there’s a touch of Sam Mendes bombast (the swelling score), a hint of Spielbergian boyhood nostalgia (the prominently displayed E.T. poster), and even a light dash of Terrence Malick wonder (the wordless flashbacks). Reitman wants his movie to dually function as a thriller, but his attempts at suspense are predicated on irrational behavior: Adele and her son guiltily stammer and perspire whenever anyone intrudes upon their new domestic bliss, whereas passing townsfolk—distractingly portrayed by famous actors—subject the two to constant crucibles of distrust. The drama rings as false as the romance.
Despite its borderline-offensive assertion that a wanted, potentially violent man of the house is better than no man of the house, Labor Day is too fatally polite to incense. It’s a mostly colorless weepie, aiming for the mythic power of a Great American Novel, but achieving dramatic vagueness instead. Who is Brolin’s cuddly fugitive, come to mend this broken family by afflicting it with Stockholm syndrome, but a walking cliché of saintly masculinity? And who is Winslet’s heroine, deflated even when falling head over heels, but “damaged goods” personified? No real sparks fly between the two, probably because they’re playing stock types, granted parallel traumatic backstories instead of personalities. On the other hand, maybe the film’s true love story—perversely, perhaps accidentally—is between a boy and his mother: Before Frank saunters in, Henry offers Adele “husband for a day” coupons, failing to grasp which of her needs he can’t satisfy; later, the two lay together in a hammock, Adele attempting to articulate to her offspring how sex feels. In nearly incestuous moments like these, it’s as though there’s a weirder film threatening to poke through Labor Day’s mundane surface, like a fork breaching the golden-brown crust of one of Frank’s delectable pastries.