The story told in Labor Day, about Adele (Kate Winslet), a divorced and depressed mother to young teenager Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and their long holiday weekend with stranger Frank (Josh Brolin) is absurd. See, Frank is an escaped convict who politely but firmly takes Adele and Henry hostage and then somehow changes their lives for the better.
In actuality, it’s not a bad set-up for a story. Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel on which the movie is based is highly regarded, and a movie’s source material isn’t all that important. The end result—the movie—is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how good a dramatic novel is if the moving picture based on it makes you want to laugh at its awkwardness.
What’s on screen in Labor Day is not believable for a second. It’s made harder to believe by the acting. Griffith does well enough, but Winslet and Brolin seem lost as they spout the world’s most earnest dialogue in a story that demands a nod to how ridiculous it is—or considerably more time to develop characters this complicated. Flashbacks to Adele and Frank’s lives hinder instead of help, and the voiceover—by Tobey Maguire as the older but somehow younger-sounding Henry—really doesn’t help.
It’s 1987. A few days before school starts, Henry and Adele take a trip to a local store to buy Henry new pants. When he goes to peruse the comics, he’s approached by Frank, who’s wearing what looks like a store employee’s apron, a recently bloodstained T-shirt, and a grimace that suggests seriousness.
Before long, he’s talked Adele into taking him home with them. It’s a gentle kidnapping—her depression has left her unable to put the car in gear without help, so being kidnapped doesn’t seem a stretch. In fact, it’s one of the movie’s few honest moments, but it’s also hopelessly contrived—what are the chances the escaped convict will find the woman who, literally, can’t defend herself or her kid?
When they arrive at Adele’s home, Frank ties her to a chair so it will look like she’s been abducted—if she’s asked whether she’s been kidnapped, says Frank, she can honestly reply “yes”—and soon he’s making dinner for her, even blowing on the food before he spoon feeds it to her. It’s supposed to be a charming act of nurturing that humanizes the convict, but the sincerity with which Brolin blows on the food—because it’s so hot!—and the manner in which Winslet takes it—the food is so hot!—is distractingly silly (and just wait until you learn why Frank was in prison).
Once Adele is cut loose, Frank begins fixing things in the house. Then he teaches Henry to throw a ball. Then he and Adele are in love and plotting a move to Canada.
There are subplots. Henry’s father (Clark Gregg) is a pleasant but distant figure, taking his new family (wife, daughter, stepson) and Henry to dinner once a week. James Van Der Beek pops up as a suspicious cop. And Brooke Smith—you may remember her as rubbing the lotion on its skin before it gets the hose again in The Silence of the Lambs—is better than the movie deserves as the irritating neighbor.
It all ties together, but director Jason Reitman is much better with the comedies, such as Juno, Thank You for Smoking, and the comically dramatic Young Adult. His touch here, which has the nuance of a sledgehammer, makes the inherently dramatic downright lugubrious.
Eventually Labor Day begins to feel like a parody of itself and convict-with-a-heart-of-gold stories. By the time Frank teaches Adele and Henry how to make a pie—complete with all three kneading the dough together—you’ll wonder whether this is a Saturday Night Live sketch that got cut before the live broadcast.
Directed by Jason Reitman