DIRECTED BY Jason Reitman
STARS Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin
With just four films, Jason Reitman established himself as a director who was interested in original and offbeat material, teaming with scripter Diablo Cody to make Juno and Young Adult and taking it upon himself to adapt the novels Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air into glorious movies (with the latter emerging as 2009's best film). With these fresh and funny pictures under his belt, it's proving to be extremely difficult to accept the fact that he's the one behind the colorless, humorless and utterly predictable Labor Day.
The source novel by Joyce Maynard, one-time teen lover of J.D. Salinger and author of the acclaimed To Die For, is by all accounts an intelligent coming-of-age story, but while the protagonist of the film version is indeed a 13-year-old boy, its compression of characterizations and storylines makes it seem like it was adapted from one of those trashy beach reads that are digested and forgotten over the course of one sunburnt afternoon. Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) is the boy caring for his mom Adele (Kate Winslet), who's withdrawn from the world ever since her husband (Clark Gregg, usually seen rounding up superheroes as Agent Coulson) left her for another woman. As the adult Henry helpfully explains via voiceover (thanks, Tobey Maguire), Adele wasn't in love with her ex as much as she was in love with the notion of love, and she figures that she's now doomed to be alone.
All that changes when they go to the supermarket and an injured man named Frank (Josh Brolin) forces them to drive him to their house. It turns out that he's an escaped convict, and he just needs a place to catch his breath for a few hours. But before you can say "Stockholm syndrome," Adele discovers she's happy to have this guy around. After all, how many lonely women can claim to have a hunky con to call their own, especially one who's a skilled handyman, an adept mechanic and a superb cook? (On the latter point, there's even a pie-making sequence that stirs memories of Ghost's pottery-spinning segment.) For his part, Henry is initially pleased to have the big lug around — he teaches him baseball, just like a real dad should! — but his affection wavers after he has a couple of chats with a funky classmate (Brighid Fleming) who even at her young age is already suspicious of men.
In the context of the film, Henry's whiplash emotions and dunderheaded actions don't suggest typical teen behavior as much as wretched writing on Reitman's part. The same strain of sloppy scripting also affects the romance between Adele and Frank, which occurs in about the same amount of time as it takes most people to pick out a card on Valentine's Day. If the movie works in spurts, it's only because of the three central performances: Brolin and Winslet are believable as the damaged grown-ups, while Griffith's eager eyes and moon-shaped face work well for his part of a sensitive and protective son.
The movie is called Labor Day because all the action takes place over the long holiday weekend. Yet given its fondness for wince-inducing exchanges and disagreeable plot contrivances, they should have opted for Labor Pains instead.