In Jason Reitman’s overwrought melodrama Labor Day, escaped felon Frank (Josh Brolin) delicately plucks a daisy from ground and holds it up to his nose as single mother Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) look on longingly. The audience, meanwhile, rolls their collective eyes as the film tells in the most unimaginative way possible that this man has a sensitive side.
Frank is a convicted murderer who leapt out of a second-floor hospital window after being taken in for an appendectomy. He runs into Adele and Henry during their monthly trip to the department store in small-town Massachusetts at the onset on Labor Day weekend in 1987; during the tense encounter, he all but forces them to give him a ride back to their place so he can lay low for a few hours.
Soon, he’s making chili, mopping the floor, fixing the car, repairing the stone wall in the driveway, and teaching Hank to play baseball. He may or may not be a violent sociopath (the film tantalizingly keeps the details of his crime from us – and Adele and Henry – even though any news report would bring them up), but he is one thing: the perfect man.
He can also bake a pretty mean pie. There are no sex scenes in Labor Day – Frank and Adele barely share an on-camera kiss (though sharp-eared viewers will note some passionate vibes coming through Henry’s bedroom wall) – but when they start making that peach pie, well, all the sexual tension from a man who has just escaped from prison and his captive, a nervous wreck of a woman who had resigned herself to never having another meaningful relationship, comes to a head.
I can’t get over that pie baking scene. It all begins when a friendly neighbor brings the family over a bucket of peaches along with a warning about a dangerous con on the loose. The neighbor is played by J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson), and it’s his only scene in the movie – this character literally exists in the screenplay to deliver a bucket of peaches (along some faux-tension, but whatever).
Frank sinks his teeth into a peach. “Too bad these are all ripe,” he exclaims. “You’ll never get through them all.”
“We might as well throw them all away now,” Adele replies.
“I’ve got a better idea.” They glare at each other, sweat dripping from their brows. We can feel the heat. The film has entered subversive Douglas Sirk territory, and what happens next is indescribable as anything other than the most sensual pie baking sequence that you’ve ever seen.
Labor Day is cornball hokum of the highest magnitude, taken so seriously that you wonder if the director and his actors realized the inherent silliness of this material. I think they must have, but rather than distancing themselves from all the melodrama and mawkish dialogue and the overbearing sentimentality, they’ve embraced it so fully that it spins the whole thing back in on itself.
That makes Labor Day a hard film to get a grasp on. Despite the Nicholas Sparks-level story (the film is based on a 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, which was adapted by director Reitman for the screen), the resulting film is unquestionably well made, with some genuinely suspenseful sequences (a first for the director) and a vaguely disquieting vibe that includes some starkly-realized flashbacks.
Of course, the story offers few surprises, and the inclusion of supporting characters to drive plot points frequently induces groans. Let me ask this: you’re an escaped convict hiding out in a family home, wouldn’t you keep the door locked to ensure your privacy? How about after a nosy neighbor just comes barging in? Isn’t that a sign to lock the door so the same damn thing doesn’t happen again in the future?
I have no idea what might have attracted director Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) or his cast to this material, but they certainly give it their all. Brolin and Winslet just soak up the screen, while young Griffith provides an empathetic central presence; Tobey Maguire narrates as the older Henry, but after The Great Gatsby, I’ve heard just about enough narration out of him. Cinematography from frequent Reitman collaborator Eric Steelberg beautifully captures a nostalgic New England vibe.
Labor Day might be shamelessly indulgent melodrama, but in an age of overtly self-aware wink-wink filmmaking, this kind of Douglas Sirk throwback is almost a breath of fresh air. At the very least, the talent involved helps elevate this one above the usual Nicholas Sparks adaptations that hit screens each year.