Movie review: Characters make you care about 'Labor Day' love story

For the News-DemocratJanuary 30, 2014 

What It's About

A low-key love story meshes with an unusual coming-of-age story for a tearjerking "Labor Day."

The cynical will describe it as a highly unlikely high-concept romance. The movie adaptation of Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel is a perplexing jumble of maudlin and malarky, mainly because Jason Reitman directed it. He's sensational with glib, satirical, even snarky material like "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult." But tackling a subject that feels like a paperback romance novel seems a stretch.

While he doesn't completely pull it off, there is an earnest quality that draws you in -- and that has much to do with the performers.

Kate Winslet plays a single mother damaged by life, who has become a frumpy recluse in a small New Hampshire town, while her 13-year-old son Henry has been forced to shoulder the "man of the house" duties. A back-to-school shopping trip leads to a situation that changes everything forever.

Josh Brolin is Frank, an escaped convict who considers them a ticket to his freedom. He'll hide out in their home until he can make a clean break. Only he cooks and starts doing chores, and somehow, he no longer appears menacing. Sure, he's in the slammer for murder, but this mysterious man has a backstory that depends on your sympathy.

Adele has a sad backstory too. At first, everyone mopes around, and the movie moves languidly -- almost a cliche, as in a Southern gothic scorcher where the heat is a metaphor for all the sexual tension. Over the course of this sweltering Labor Day weekend in 1987, somehow Frank, Adele and Henry mesh into a family unit.

The tension builds when well-meaning and clueless outsiders come a-knockin'. Plans are put into motion, but it's pie-in-the-sky. And pie is another big metaphor, as Frank teaches the Wheelers how to make a Food Network-worthy peach pie from scratch.

Performances

While not thoroughly convincing as a dowdy house frau, Kate Winslet exudes sadness and yearning in such a way, you want her to be magically transformed by love.

Josh Brolin is believable as a manly man whose life went off the rails another lifetime ago, and with his kindness towards a disabled boy and his tender fatherly concern about Henry, you are led to believe he's a good guy trapped by circumstances. Hey, he fixes cars.

The real find here is young Gattlin Griffith, conveying his vulnerable pubescent boy feelings on his sleeve but also being a dutiful son, hoping for his mom to be happy and all of them having a shot at a better life.

Tom Lipinski is memorable as the young Frank in flashback, having a remarkable resemblance to Brolin. Tobey Maguire is the older Henry, and narrates the film in his measured cadence.

What Works

For fans of the book, the film is a faithful adaptation, with a few ambiguities. (And the book includes that scrumptious-looking peach pie recipe). The performers are so sincere that they sell this ultimate chick-flick fantasy. You might think it's all a manipulative love story guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings, but darn it, the material sucks you in. Get out the tissues.

The film is beautifully shot, evoking the summers past etched in your memories. It also has an ending that you want to root for in movies, tying things up in much neater fashion than you predicted.

And if you don't want a slice of pie after viewing this movie, kudos to your willpower.

What Doesn't Work

You must get past the concept of a good convict, I suppose, for you to swallow this story. The film's somber tone makes it hard to warm up to until at least midway. James Vander Beek is wasted in what amounts to a cameo as a police officer.

2 1/2 stars

Director: Jason Reitman

Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg, James Vander Beek and Tobey Maguire

Length: 1:51

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality

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