When you’re harboring an escaped murderer in your home because he accosted you in a grocery store and implicitly threatened your child, it’s so nice when he can help out with the chores. Such seems to be the moral of Jason Reitman’s befuddling Labor Day, a sluggish romantic drama (based on a novel of the same title by Joyce Maynard) about a prison escapee who shacks up over the holiday in question with a depressed single mother and her lonely pubescent son.
The foundational assumption on which this movie is built—that choosing to shelter that handsome, muscled fugitive from justice might just be the best idea the passive shut-in Adele (Kate Winslet) ever had—has a teenage-daydream absurdity that almost elevates Labor Day to the realm of camp (an honor it misses out on only by being too boring). Reitman’s previous four films—Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult—featured flawed but dynamic protagonists who struggled to overcome their mistakes and bad choices. Adele makes hay of hers: From the moment she agrees to take in the injured, hunky Frank (Josh Brolin)—who insists, without elaborating, that he’s never hurt anyone intentionally in his life—things start looking up for her and 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who’s been forced to act as a kind of surrogate husband to his unhappy mother since his dad (Clark Gregg) left them to start a new family with his secretary.
One of Frank’s first acts upon arriving at their ramshackle house is to tie Henry and his mother up—gently and, in Adele’s case, rather sensually—in order to make it look like they’re his hostages, not his hosts, should the fuzz burst in. But once it becomes clear that, for the moment, no one is hot on his trail, Frank loosens the bonds of rope and begins to strengthen the bonds … of love. Over a span of mere days—the long weekend’s progress is marked off in on-screen titles reading “Friday,” “Saturday,” etc.—Frank makes himself indispensable, fixing the broken sink, tuning up the car’s engine, and—that ultimate signifier of paternal manliness—teaching the unathletic Henry how to properly throw a baseball. Most gratifying of all—both for the love-starved Henry and Adele and for the entertainment-starved audience—Frank can cook like an ex-con angel. His first night there, he whips up an impromptu batch of chili, feeding it to the tied-up Adele after tenderly blowing on each bite. Later, he makes breakfast biscuits that are consumed in reverent silence and then, after a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) brings over a basket of perfectly ripe peaches, teaches Henry and his mother how to bake a perfect peach pie. The gauzily erotic pie-making montage, with close-ups of hands submerged to the wrist in bowls of slippery fruit as an acoustic guitar noodles on the soundtrack, is the movie’s camp high point, a culinary equivalent of the iconic pottery-wheel scene in Ghost. It’s only a matter of time, we soon realize, until Frank and Adele will be kneading something other than dough.
Slowly (very slowly) and inexorably, the manhunt for Frank closes in on this pop-up happy family. Henry can’t resist dropping hints about his glamorous house guest to the cute but manipulative new girl in town (Brighid Fleming), who fans his Oedipal jealousy and fears of abandonment by suggesting that his mother may be looking to leave town with her new man and leave him behind. Frank’s memories of the long-ago crime that led to his incarceration begin to return in the form of ever-less-fragmented flashbacks. And a friendly local cop (James Van Der Beek) starts to notice something amiss in the goings-on at Adele and Henry’s place: Why do they appear to be packing up their house to move just as the boy is due back at school for the fall? The grown-up Henry—heard in a voiceover by Tobey Maguire, who also appears briefly in the film’s coda—will explain it all for you, but not until long after you’ve predicted the Nicholas Sparks–worthy denouement.
One thing I will say for Labor Day: It contains some valuable cooking tips, from the suggestion of adding brewed coffee to ground-beef chili to the scattering of tapioca beads over the bottom of a pie crust to ward off sogginess (“like salt on an icy road,” counsels Frank, as they prepare the pastry that will change their lives forever). Maybe that explains Labor Day’s sticky-sweet sentimentality and mushy narrative structure: Jason Reitman forgot the tapioca.