Labor Day Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith. Directed by Jason Reitman. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Jason Reitman has built a remarkably successful career by offering audience-friendly takes on controversial subjects. Thank You for Smoking took the point of view of a tobacco lobbyist; Juno wrung laughs from the spectacle of a pregnant teenager; Up in the Air and Young Adult both feature protagonists who initially seem reprehensible (one of whom more or less stays that way). His films can be overly glib, and they tend to pull their punches, but none has been generic or dismissible ... until now. Labor Day, Reitman’s fifth feature, was adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard, herself a rather spiky talent; her juvenilia led to a romance with J.D. Salinger, and one of her previous books formed the basis for Gus Van Sant’s black comedy To Die For. Apart from the relatively advanced age of its lovers, however, this vacuous feel-good fable could easily be mistaken for the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation. It’s about as sharp and substantial as pie filling.
Pies play a hilariously large role in Labor Day’s ludicrous story, as it happens. The film’s heroine is a single mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), who’s raising her teenage son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), in a depressive fog after her husband (Clark Gregg) ran off with his secretary. Though Adele rarely leaves the house, she has to take Henry back-to-school shopping every fall, and her worst fears about the outside world are confirmed when the two happen upon an escaped convict (Josh Brolin) and are quietly taken hostage, so that he can hole up with them while recovering from a gunshot wound. But the convict, whose name is Frank, turns out to be just about the swellest guy a broken family could ever hope to meet—a combination handyman, chef and surrogate husband/father, whiling away his time fixing stuff around the house and teaching Henry how to play catch. Oh, and making peach pies, in some of the gooiest pseudo-pornographic footage since Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze got behind that pottery wheel in Ghost.
Because Winslet and Brolin are terrific actors capable of injecting soulfulness into hokey material, Labor Day isn’t as laborious as it would be were it actually a Sparks adaptation starring two young flavors of the month. All the same, guffaws will have to be stifled on a regular basis throughout this nonsense, which embraces wish fulfillment with a gusto rarely seen these days. Some sympathetic critics have invoked the name of Douglas Sirk, the great director of weepies back in the 1950s, but Sirk’s movies invariably hid a dark subtext beneath their glossy surfaces. Nothing remotely subversive or subtly dangerous is lurking here—even Frank’s status as a criminal winds up being smoothed away. Like pie, it’s all empty calories.