A man doing 18 years for murder escapes during a hospital visit and holes up in the semi-rural home of a paralyzingly depressed divorcée and her sensitive and impressionable pubescent boy. The escapee is tough but tender, a sort of ideal man, really, one whose very position as the subject of a manhunt radiates danger without exuding any real threat. He ties the divorcée up just right; he fixes the furnace and tunes up the station wagon; he cleans the floor, gets rid of the squeak in the screen door hinges, and makes hearty chilli and mouth-watering cobbler. He says he didn’t kill anyone on purpose, and why shouldn’t the divorcée believe him? He’s so nice. And patient. And intuitive. And strong. (He’s Josh Brolin!) And anyway the divorcée needs a man’s love and attention. She’s fragile, wiggy, actually, but super-desirable. (She’s Kate Winslet!) The boy is drawn to the escapee and gets loving baseball tips from him. But he’s also jealous maybe, especially once he kens onto the heat rising between the escapee and his mom—this is, after all, a boy who gives his mother a “Husband-for-a-Day” coupon book for back-rubs and breakfast in bed. A key scene has all six of these characters’ hands plunged in a bowl, fondling ripe, sticky peaches in a kind of familial food-porn orgy. As with so much about this movie, a little light perversion goes a long way.
Labor Day is a brooding coming-of-age story and the fairly chaste tale of a heady long weekend-long romance. Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), it takes itself very, very seriously, though if, for example, you just remove the hushed, portentous scoring from that first scene where Brolin makes his weirdo entrance, bleeding, furtive, politely asking the boy to help him discreetly exit a department store, the whole thing would easily play as comedy. (Cyrus, maybe?) Screwball comedy? (Cary Grant: “I’m sorry, my dear, but I just can’t seem to shake these policemen.”) Or as Harlequin romance (obviously). Or as red-meat noir. Any of these would have made the film’s story, taken from the Joyce Maynard novel, a little easier to swallow. From the very notion of Winslet’s financially strapped shut-in and devoted mother trusting this guy enough to dump everything and leave the country with him and her son, to the escapee’s complete lack of any alarming, even normal-alarming, qualities, to the pretty pastoral flashbacks to young love and heartbreak, to the numerous shamelessly artificial obstacles that accumulate as the movie enters its third act (the nosy cop, the nosy ex, the nosy bank teller, the nosy, intrusive neighbour with the handicapped son who nearly spills the beans), pretty much everything in Labor Day is utterly preposterous. Brolin and Winslet (both of them actors I love), and even Gattlin Griffith, who plays the boy, each go the extra limit to dignify these characters and make them plausible. But that might be the problem (along with the spells of PBS classical guitar that accompanies scenes of secret fleeting carbohydrate-stoned domestic bliss). It’s certainly what makes Labor Day so laughable. It’s just impossible to take this stuff seriously. Though who knows? Maybe you’ll swoon in spite of yourself. Especially if you get hot and bothered over manly men baking.