By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Labor Day is a compelling and suspenseful if implausible romantic drama that takes place over one hot, humid late-summer holiday weekend in 1987 as it looks in on what we might call an “improvised” family.
Kate Winslet plays Adele Wheeler, a brokenhearted and reclusive divorced single mom in a small town in New England who is far too familiar with tragedy and trauma and rejection.
So she’s no longer strong. In fact, she’s so frightened that she’s essentially agoraphobic. She lives and is completely wrapped up in her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), whom she takes to a Labor Day sale to buy school clothes.
Josh Brolin is Frank Chambers, a desperate escaped convict serving eighteen years for first-degree murder whom Adele and Henry find bleeding and limping. He approaches and asks them, politely but insistently, to give him a ride and take him to their home for a brief emergency visit.
But he volunteers little as to why he was in prison.
Thus does Frank, the escaped prisoner, hide out in the prison that Adele has constructed for herself.
But as emergency conditions seem to vaporize and Frank demonstrates a number of domestic skills that make the household run more smoothly, the brief visit stretches into a longer stay. The peach pie he concocts and supervises, for example, creates excitement on a few levels -– and gives the sculpting-in-clay episode in Ghost a run for its sexy-metaphor money.
But while Frank’s with them and under their roof, is he their guest or are they his hostages?
And are they helping him or is he threatening them?
As the Stockholm syndrome kicks in and police search their town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn Frank’s true story, and the romantic bond between Frank and Adele — as well as the paternal bond between Frank and Henry — grow exponentially.
Did someone say a murderer lived here?
Based on Joyce Maynard’s best-selling 2009 novel, Jason Reitman’s coming-of-age script, downright leisurely at times, allows for the unspoken to be as eloquent and affecting as the spoken, and is delivered in a layered narrative that mixes in flashbacks with recollective narration (perhaps reliable, perhaps not) by Tobey Maguire as a grownup version of Henry, with events unfolding in real time, while building deliberately to an extended denouement that pours on the sentiment and gives the film one more ending than it needs.
Like virtually all the protagonists in writer-director Jason Reitman’s films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult), Winslet’s Adele makes some choices that are intriguing but questionable.
Reitman the director, working in much less of a comedic, ironic, edgy vein than has been his wont, keeps things low-keyed and on the quiet side, and asks you to take one or two hard-to-swallow leaps with him (if you’re willing, the film will work for you; if not, it won’t) as he builds the connection between Adele and Frank in a gradual and modulated way while also managing to maintain a level of tension and a sense of casual mystery throughout.
With Winslet’s Oscar and six nominations, we’ve come to take her excellence for granted. And she’s characteristically fine here.
Brolin matches her nicely. And young Griffith handles his significant and demanding role with aplomb.
So we’ll bake 2½ stars out of 4 for this intimate, restrained, and absorbingly sad drama about loneliness and longing.
Would that the movie were as peachy as that pie. But as long as you don’t find it belabored, Labor Day just might make your day.