Until now, it looked like Jason Reitman could be his generation's answer to Billy Wilder. From his smart and savage directorial debut, 2005's Thank You for Smoking, up through 2007's Juno, 2009's Up in the Air, and 2011's Young Adult, Reitman specialized in the kind of saw-toothed satires that come packaged in dark, cynical wrappers. But with his latest film, the mawkish and melodramatic Labor Day, Reitman has done an unexpected about-face: He's ditched Wilder for Douglas Sirk. And the swap doesn't do him or his fans any favors.
Adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day unfolds over the titular mercury-rising weekend in 1987 at the home of an agoraphobic divorcée named Adele (Kate Winslet) and her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Adele's house is a reflection of her psyche the yellowing wallpaper is peeling, the shutters are falling off their hinges. She's an emotionally fragile shut-in stung by some unspoken trauma who depends on her son as a connection to an outside world she retreated from long ago. But during a rare outing to the PriceSmart, their codependent routine is blown to smithereens by the arrival of an escaped convict named Frank (Josh Brolin). Bleeding from his gut, the menacing stranger collars Henry and quietly intimidates Adele into taking him to their home. Why doesn't she say something to the checkout girl or yell for help? The film's barely 10 minutes old and you already want to shake some sense into it.
Once back at the house, Frank ties up Adele, pausing to tenderly caress her foot before spoon-feeding her some chili that he's whipped up in the kitchen. At this point, even the most voracious reader of Harlequin romances might let out an embarrassed titter. But that's just a warm-up for what comes next: the peach pie. Ay-yi-yi, the peach pie. While police comb the town for Frank, he cleans the gutters, teaches Henry how to throw a curveball, and enlists the mother and son to help make the most metaphorically heavy-handed pastry in movie history. As the three reach into a bowl together to sensually knead the syrupy peach filling, you can't help but feel like you're watching a laughable food-porn send-up of the pottery scene from Ghost, with fruit standing in for clay. Apparently, what Adele needed all along was nothing more than a misunderstood brute in a snug white T-shirt to fix her furnace, her station wagon, and her broken soul.
It's clear from his track record that Brolin has the chops to play a dangerous drifter in his sleep. Sadly, he seems to be doing just that here. Winslet does what she can to add layers to her vulnerable-victim role. In the end, though, Labor Day never comes anywhere close to developing into the sexy Stockholm-syndrome drama it wants to be. It's just pseudo-romantic hooey. But I will say this: As ridiculous as its creation is, that peach pie looks damn good when it finally comes piping hot out of the oven. C