The funniest unintentional laugh in “Labor Day” is the way adaptor / director Jason Reitman treats this eye-rolling, melodramatic romance novel as if he’s got his hands on the works of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy.
A genteel escaped convict hides out with a grieving divorcee and offers another chance at love? It’s “The Prisons of Madison County.”
Kate Winslet conveys a quivering, emotionally crippled vulnerability as the single mom and Josh Brolin suggests the proper balance of menace and chivalry as the convicted murderer. And young Gattlin Griffith is the 13-year-old who realizes that he is never going to be adequate as mom’s substitute husband.
The boy Henry is the one the goateed and bloodied Frank (Brolin) approaches in the small-town supermarket. The pitch for a getaway, first to him then to his mother, is polite with just a hint of threat: “Frankly, this needs to happen.”
Frank assures them he just needs to lay low until the law passes by their house, just until he can hop a freight train in the morning. But he sees Adele’s shaky hold on sanity, the ruin she’s let the house fall into, her loneliness. Before you know it, he’s cleaning the house, cooking dinner and – ever so lovingly – tying her up to keep up “held hostage” appearances.
Henry, who narrates this story as an adult (voiced by Tobey Maguire), is confused. He bonds with the new man in their house, is impressed by Frank’s masculine tenderness and consideration. Henry might even learn a thing or two about the fairer sex, useful tips he can try out on the pushy-edgy big-city girl who’s new to town (Brighid Fleming).
Reitman, for whom the glories of “Up in the Air” are but a fading memory, ladles on the sap in scenes where Frank grabs Adele’s hands and shoves them into the pie he’s making, or cradles her as he teaches her to hit a baseball. Adele teaches Frank to rumba and cha cha and over the course of a Labor Day weekend in 1987, and dares to think they have a future.
Skip past the eye-rolling unlikeliness of this scenario – the fact that nosey, personal-space violating neighbors never notice that the guy whose picture is all over TV is cleaning the gutters of the divorced woman’s house – and treasure the film’s tense moments of kidnapping and near discovery. Reitman, using a pulsing, quietly pounding Rolf Kent score and a lot of silence, tightens the screws in these scenes like an old pro.
But as with “Young Adult,” he’s chosen material too thin to support a deeper, more ambitious story.
Whatever the gifts of memoirist, J.D. Salinger paramour and novelist Joyce Maynard, here her work comes off as a slightly more masculine Nicholas Sparks.
And “Labor Day,” for all its filmmaking care and care-worn performances, is nothing more than a beach book, inconsequential and utterly out of place in January.