After a long career of consuming the screen with passions that threatened to overtake her co-stars just as much as the audience, how exotic it is to see Kate Winslet spend her Labor Day in such a docile role of submission. A subservient presence to her kidnapper, son, and likely the mailman three blocks down the street, Winslet’s Adele Wheeler all but rolls over and plays dead at the slightest hint of another’s presence. So, it’s the highest compliment that Winslet is able to bring tangible vitality to this living, breathing visage of weakness. This paradoxical intensity applies just as easily to the whole long weekend itself.
Labor Day is the lackadaisical tale of what happens when one deferential woman and her introverted son pick up the world’s sweetest kidnapper, an on the lam convict with a penchant for sugary treats. This is made possible because Adele has been agoraphobic ever since she suffered several devastating miscarriages, which also led to the ending of her marriage. The good-natured son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), attempts to fill the void during his lonely, isolated thirteenth year by doing the husband’s chores and taking his mother on a “date,” but alas, what she needs is a man’s touch. And what a man Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) turns out to be.
Showing up one day at a grocery store while visibly bleeding from his abdomen, Frank not so much commands, but forcefully begs Adele to allow him to hostage herself and her son while he evades police after escaping prison for a murder charge. But he also is twice the man that Henry’s absent father (Clark Gregg) ever could be when he teaches the boy how to play baseball, change a tire, and then properly swing dance with mama. Their three-day bliss has the joy of the condemned, because the more Frank spends his nights inside Adele’s bedroom, the more Henry seemingly questions the prospect of a stepdad, fueling an ending that scours the frame for tears.
Based on the Joyce Maynard novel of the same name, Labor Day massages early kinks out of its potentially unsavory premise by framing it in the rose-tinted light of the story’s protagonist, Henry. Adult Henry (Tobey Maguire) narrates this pivotal moment in his teenage life during 1987 with all the nostalgia for yesteryear Americana that’s usually reserved for the 19th century. After also giving the same auditory framing in last summer’s The Great Gatsby, it’s become apparent that Maguire is gifted at finding the nuance within acquiescing observers, causing one to wonder if a voiceover career is in the offing. Between Maguire’s good-natured folksiness, underscoring shadings of melancholic regret, and Griffith’s quiet resilience, Henry seems quite the self-aware adolescent. This unfortunately causes some of his baffling choices in the third act to seem more narrative than character influenced.
However, Winslet and Brolin buoy up these contrivances from sinking the picture. Their chemistry bubbles like the golden crust of the peach pie that Frank teaches his willing prisoners to make on a gingerly Saturday afternoon. The act of baking has never so quickly transferred its ingredients into one of seduction of not only the husbandless mother, but also of the fatherless son. Henry’s persistent interest in his mother’s sex life leads to him being just as easily wooed by Frank’s culinary artisanship, raising the question of who in this movie is the subject of potential Stockholm Syndrome: the family or Frank?
These nagging questions are surprisingly glossed over for the warmth of a leather baseball glove in Henry’s hand and the joy that bounds out of Adele’s flesh almost instantly at the prospect of a man being in the house. Jason Reitman, fresh off his cynical backlash to previous feel-good movie successes with 2011’s acidic Young Adult, has veered back toward (and beyond) schmaltz that would have made even Ellen Page’s plucky, pregnant teen roll her eyes. It can be jarring how earnestly this tale embraces the concept of two pathetically sad souls finding each other in a rush of human contact and ending summer ecstasy. While that image is not nearly as sexy as this movie might infer, there is something nonetheless pure about its bluntness.
Then again, with talent like Winslet carrying what would be an otherwise repellant character, Labor Day always knew it could keep its hand that close to the mawkish flame.
Equal parts Patty Hearst and Nicholas Sparks, this slow-baking shapeless dough of understated sexuality and sentimentality will still burn to the touch by the end for those who are into that sort of thing. In fact, it’s probably exactly what you ordered if you have a tooth for it.