Labor Day: Self-Conscious and Phony

 Labor Day: Self-Conscious and Phony
Photo by Dale Robinette - © 2013 - Paramount Pictures Corporation and Frank's Pie Company LLC.

Labor Day
Directed by Jason Reitman
Paramount Pictures
Opens January 31

Quick, somebody check Jason Reitman's house to see if the real man has been turned into dust by a body snatcher. Though his name's on the poster, it's impossible to believe that the sardonic boy wonder of Juno, Thank You for Smoking, and Young Adult would direct this stilted romance between a divorcée and a dreamboat escaped convict. Labor Day is so self-conscious and phony, it must be the work of a pod person. Humans, film lovers, and fans of Reitman's till-now-flawless filmography: We've gotta fight back.

The plot of Labor Day would make a great Upworthy article. Let me suggest a title: "I Never Thought I'd Want My Mom to Love a Murderer Until I Met This Bloody Hunk." After dad (Clark Gregg) ditches the family for his secretary, 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffin) and mom Adele (Kate Winslet) retreat from the world. Adele is one hand-tremor away from a nervous breakdown; the boy is a shy, soulful nerd forced to parent himself and fill his father's shoes. Too sheltered to distinguish between adorable and inappropriate, for her birthday he presents mom with a homemade coupon book titled "Husband for a day."

For the cloistered duo, the first weekend in September is its own holiday-within-a-holiday: Taking Henry back-to-school shopping is one of the rare times Adele leaves their dilapidated house. As mom frets over his pant size, Henry meets a gut-wounded prison escapee named Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who takes one glance at frail Adele and grunts, "She looks like the kind of person who can help me." He means hide him from the police. But something in this fugitive's eyes says he's the kind of guy who deserves a good massage.

With a squeeze of Henry's neck, Frank strongly encourages Adele to take him home, where he engages in a bit of light bondage by binding her hands and feeding her homemade chili. (What is this, Fifty Shades of Bobby Flay?) The music frets as if he may still eat her liver for dessert. But like Hannibal Lecter, Frank Chambers is fictional nonsense — a handsome quasi-kidnapper who promptly decides to change the oil, wax the floors, grout the cellar, quiet a whiny door, bake fabulous homemade biscuits, and teach Henry to play catch.

In the most snortworthy scene, the three of them team up to make a peach pie. Frank is so domestic he calls the crust "putting a roof on the house," and together, the insta-family members shove their six hands into the fruit. (Maybe they've mistaken it for an Ouija board that can summon Frank's ex-wife to explain why he was convicted of her murder.) Finally, we have a male parallel to the hooker with a heart of gold. Why should Adele call the cops when she's lucked into a Husband for a Holiday Weekend?

Reitman adapted the Labor Day screenplay from a novel by Joyce Maynard, the memoirist best known for shacking up with J.D. Salinger when she was 18. Maynard once fell in love with an inmate named Lucky — or, at least, convinced herself she did enough to write about their correspondence for Vogue — but their relationship never proceeded past being pen pals. She pulled the cord when Lucky said he was coming to visit. (Plus, she admitted, he was ugly.) Good-looking Josh Brolin, a man born to give a gal a sexy squint, feels born of those brief letter-writing fantasies. Not only is he too perfect to exist on earth, he's too flawless even for Hollywood fiction, sticking out of every scene like glossy CGI.

It's disheartening watching Winslet and Brolin give their all to parts that could have been filled by anyone on the Hallmark Channel. This can't be the movie they were expecting when they signed on to a new flick by the director of Young Adult and the novelist behind To Die For, two bleak, acid-perfect romances. At least Winslet's tremors have earned her a Golden Globes nomination, though she could score that with a Vine of herself tying her shoes.

As our narrator is a 13-year-old child of divorce with only a vague understanding of adult love, Winslet's blooming has to take second billing to Henry's adolescent concerns, namely impressing the brash new girl in town (Brighid Fleming), who instantly orders him to emancipate himself from his parents. We're supposed to ignore that the two kids are hanging out at a public library on a Sunday on a holiday weekend, but after the midway point in his mess — around when the camera filter changes from old-teabag brown to the color of hope — everyone is acting so illogically we can't be bothered to add Labor Day's disregard of governmental opening hours to its list of sins.

Besides, we could all learn one thing from Frank: "Pie crust is a very forgiving thing," he purrs. "You can make all kinds of mistakes, but you can't forget the salt." Fine, Reitman. We'll give you another chance. But take your own advice and kick up the spice.

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