The thesis of "Labor Day," taken from Joyce Maynard's novel, was summed up well by The Washington Post headline affixed to the Post's book review: "Sometimes it's okay to pick up a scary drifter."
In the fictitious town of Holton Mills, N.H., 13-year-old Henry has become the emotional caretaker for his depressed, agoraphobic single mother, Adele. Numerous miscarriages have eroded her sense of stability; monthly trips to the local supermarket are all she can handle. On one of those shopping trips, Henry's confronted by a prison escapee, Frank, who is bleeding from the gut (he escaped during surgery), and is looking for a place to lie low for a while. Half-threateningly, half-reasonably, he persuades Adele to aid in his plan.
Over an eventful and sun-dappled Labor Day weekend, Frank reveals himself to be the honor-bound, charismatic handyman of Adele's dreams. He teaches Henry to throw a baseball. He teaches a wheelchair-bound neighbor kid to play baseball. He changes the oil in Adele's station wagon. And in the most solemnly cringe-worthy scene of the new movie year, Frank pries open Adele's and Henry's love-starved hearts with his stunning kitchen skills, as he bakes his newfound makeshift family a peach pie with a crust so flaky and filling so photogenically luscious, it's as if he has become the star of his own show: "Top Chef, Convicted Murderer Division."
We can buy a lot in fiction, on the page. The movies make romantic balderdash easier to swallow in some ways but tougher in others. Writer-director Jason Reitman's studious adaptation of "Labor Day" has too much taste and high-minded respect for Maynard's book to play up the pulpy exploitation angle. So we're left with some first-rate actors doing what they can to fill every sensually fraught glance with trace elements of human character.
Kate Winslet has such sound and reliable dramatic instincts (That Face doesn't hurt, either) she very nearly makes something of Adele. Josh Brolin lets his mellow, insinuating voice do the heavy lifting as tight-lipped Frank, a hunky amalgam of Shane and a drifter out of an William Inge play. Gattlin Griffith is young Henry, in the throes of confused adolescence; Toby Maguire provides the voice-overs as older Henry, looking back at the Labor Day weekend of his youth, when an escape to Canada was on the horizon and his feelings regarding Frank, and Henry's amiable but distant birth father (Clark Gregg), made for some serious soul-searching.
Reitman has made his considerable name on a peppy, slick brand of comedy, beginning with the gently satiric "Thank You for Smoking," moving on to "Juno" and "Up in the Air," though others prefer the meaner edge of his recent "Young Adult." "Labor Day" is Reitman's fifth feature and his first tonal misfire. For all his skills, Reitman hasn't fully mastered the director's most important tool: the BS detector. If he had, he wouldn't have allowed composer Rolfe Kent to lard the film's pie-baking sequence with the most egregiously sensitive solo guitar lines ever heard outside a freshman dorm room.
"Labor Day" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality)
Running time: 1:51