Sunday, February 2, 2014

Pie Day: "Labor Day" pulls off improbable romance with sensitivity, not soap suds

Labor Day (2014) 
111 min., rated PG-13.

Inattentive audiences will most likely be buying a ticket to swoon over Josh Brolin baking a peach pie with Kate Winslet instead of catching a sensitively handled melodrama from writer-director Jason Reitman. With a distinguished breed of brilliantly fresh and sharp films of sardonic wit and human emotion under his belt—2005's "Thank You for Smoking," 2007's "Juno," 2009's "Up in the Air," and 2011's "Young Adult"Reitman peaked early. Even if his latest is a dramatic anomaly (a.k.a. One of These Things Ain't Like the Other) and not his finest work, no one can criticize Reitman for being an artist resisting to branch out and try something more plainly sincere, somber, and extremely divisive. Surely flawed but unusual and undeniably captivating, "Labor Day" somehow avoids the soap suds of its maudlin, ooey-gooey ad campaign misguidedly cued to Rihanna's "Stay."

Based on Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel (which Reitman adapted himself), the film is part sudser, part accused-man suspenser, and part summer-set coming-of-ager, cumulatively saying something about second chances, loneliness, and longing. It's 1987 in the small New Hampshire community of Holton Mills during the August swelter. Only leaving her cluttered house once a month for food, emotionally paralyzed single mother Adele Wheeler (Winslet) feels as if she has lost love itself. One day, she works up the courage to drive her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), to buy new clothes before starting 7th grade. The young boy has been the man of the house since his father, Gerald (Clark Gregg), has left Adele for his secretary with whom he has two children. Dad wants his son to move in with him and his new family, but Henry won't abandon his real family. At the store, Henry is approached by a man who demands he and his mother's help because he has a bloodied wound. The stranger is Frank Chambers (Brolin), an escaped convict who was arrested 18 years ago and needs a place to lay low and rest his leg before hopping on the next train out. Adele has no other choice but to bring him into their home and, for the time being, Frank ties Adele up to a chair to keep up appearances as if it were a kidnapping and makes the mother and son a pot of chili (with coffee as one secret ingredient), which he gently feeds her. He not only cooks and bakes, but Frank washes and waxes the floors, fixes the furnace and loose floorboards, and plays catch with Henry. Not too long before the holdiay weekend comes, the handyman gets to cleaning Adele's gutters, literally and symbolically, as she gains his trust and wants to keep him safe. Frank just might be the presence both Adele and Henry needed in their life before one of Adele's friends (Brooke Smith) and a police officer (James Van Deer Beek) come sniffing around.

"Labor Day" should be incredibly hard to swallow. Without any context, a romantic relationship between captor and captive sounds not only unconventional but ludicrous and squicky. This literary adaptation could have just played as yet another gauzy forbidden-love Nicholas Sparks paperback or a bad TV movie. What doesn't quite work should be divulged right away—the already-derided pie-making scene. Though absent of The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody," this scene tries doing what "Ghost" did passionately with the pottery wheel. As Reitman's camera lovingly shoots Frank, Adele and Henry's hands mixing up the peaches and entering the pastry dough, the scene is overworked and eroticized, and yet played so earnestly and tastefully that the clunky symbolism becomes a bit much. When Adele's hands start to shake uncontrollably, Frank says, "Help me put a roof on this house," which is way too on the nose. Finally, we see the pie in the oven, baking in fast time, as if it's food porn and we've just seen a demonstration. Also, two lapses in logic: 1) Frank says early on that he's been convicted of a crime and would never intentionally hurt anyone, yet neither Adele nor Henry ever question the particulars, unless that conversation happened offscreen. 2) Even after a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) comes to the door to deliver a basket of peaches for Adele and alerts Henry there's a murderer on the run, why does Frank take the chance, standing on a ladder and fixing the station wagon outside? With those debits aside, the film is more thematic than first impressions would suggest, handsomely shot on-location in sun-kissed New England by Eric Steelberg, and draped in just-so period details. And as it turns out, Reitman and his actors are able make us believe what they're selling. 

Incapable of delivering an unnatural performance, Kate Winslet instantly conveys fragility and invests the broken, love-starved Adele with a tragic past and a present suffering. Her warm, heartbreaking, and emotionally rich performance aligns us on Adele's side, as we're able to see why she'd take so many risks to find happiness. In what could have just been the Magical Unicorn role, Josh Brolin brings an unpredictable danger that acts as a facade to a decency that's been there all along. When Frank's past mistakes come to the foreground, there's a sadness and vulnerability to the man who's been branded a murderer. For both Adele and Frank, the actors rationalize the relationship between equal damaged goods, one that's touching without too much overkill and doesn't exist just because the script requires that they do. It helps there aren't any steamy, hot-and-bothered shots of them rolling in the sheets, too. As young Henry, Gattlin Griffith does wonders with his eyes and ultimately proves he's up to the task of holding his own alongside two screen heavyweights.

Carefully pulled off with a quiet tension and tender grace by Reitman, "Labor Day" walks a tricky line, bypassing every chance to become fatally improbable or manipulative. From Frank's suspicious behavior and motivations to his affair with Adele to all the grippingly executed close calls, the film sets an alternately unsettling, haunting, dreamy mood, aided by composer Rolfe Kent's score that combines eerily atmospheric, subtly piercing ringing and plaintive tones. Told from Henry's point-of-view with occasional voice-over from his adult self (Tobey Maguire), the story gradually pulls back the layers pertaining to Adele and Frank's painful pasts. When their backstories are finally revealed, their bond is all the more wrenching. Adele and Frank's unlikely dynamic takes Stockholm Syndrome to the next level, making for a fascinating relationship, but "Labor Day" also penetrates teen sexuality and curiously hints at incest in provocative (albeit not gross) ways. Since Henry has taken care of his shut-in mother, he's made her breakfast in bed and even crafted a "husband for a day" book of coupons, but he could never satisfy her in ways that a husband could. Now that Henry is at the age of curiosity, his eyes wander. When Henry meets new-girl-in-town Eleanor (Brighid Fleming), her insight about parents could lead to Henry revealing that he and his mother have been harboring a criminal, but the teenage boy is rightfully conflicted between the law and his mother's new contentment. Frank's thoughtful line, "Nothing misleads people like the truth," in relation to his escape becomes very useful to Henry's own escape. If you can buy into the setup and get past the eye-rolling pie scene, the film makes for a rewarding, even cathartic piece of work. A well-earned change of pace for writer-director Reitman, "Labor Day" also stands as a cautionary illustration that we shouldn't judge a film before actually seeing it.


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