Perhaps there’s a cookbook to emerge from “Labor Day,” writer-director Jason Reitman’s swooner about a felon who semi-kidnaps a mother and son and, proving himself a master cook and handyman, rescues the withdrawn pair from their doldrums. But the preposterous story dooms this film as a suspense thriller, coming-of-age tale and romantic drama.
Reitman, whose credits include “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult,” makes films about morally derailed or emotionally detached people who, through a jolt of circumstance, find meaning or redemption in their lives. With “Labor Day” — adapted from Joyce Maynard’s novel — he repeats the themes but, for the first time, disappoints.
Combining noirish set-ups, Terrence Malick-style sun-drippiness and fantasy escapism suggesting “The Bridges of Madison County,” the film depicts a pivotal 1987 weekend in the lives of three small-town New Englanders.
Depressed, reclusive and divorced Adele (Kate Winslet) and her protective 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), encounter Frank (Josh Brolin), an injured man with a menacing quality, while shopping. Frank insists that they drive him to their home, where he keeps Adele tied up briefly (for her own good, he says) and reveals he’s escaped from prison. News reports say he’s a murderer.
It doesn’t take long, though, for Frank to win Adele’s and Henry’s trust and prove himself a mensch in wolf’s clothing. He waxes the floor. He changes the oil. He serves as a father figure to Henry, who can’t connect with his own dad (Clark Gregg).
With his cooking, Frank seduces Adele, whose depression the grown-up Henry (Tobey Maguire), narrating the story, attributes to a loss love. One bite of his biscuits and she’s hooked.
Before long, Adele has exited her funk and is showing Frank how to rumba. The lovers devise a desperate plan as the hunt for Frank ensues.
Reitman smoothly juggles plot threads and minor characters ranging from suspicious neighbors to Henry’s budding romance with a new-in-town girl to flashbacks revealing traumatic events in the characters’ pasts.
And Winslet, echoing turns in “Revolutionary Road” and “Little Children,” delivers another exquisitely shaded performance as an unhappy housewife.
But Reitman delivers neither the magic of Malick nor the tension of an escaped-convict thriller. Frank doesn’t seem to pose a threat, and Adele and Frank share little chemistry. Striving to succeed as a prestige-caliber melodrama, the romance is closer to Nicholas Sparks territory.
A scene when the three characters deeply bond while making a peach pie seals the movie’s status as a misfire for Reitman.
Starriing Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg
Written and directed by Jason Reitman
Running time 1 hour, 51 minutes