What you’ll remember is the pie-making scene. But probably not for the right reasons.
“Labor Day” is a star-crossed romance that casts Kate Winslet as Adele, a depressive New Hampshire single mother, circa 1987, Gattlin Griffith as her protective 13-year-old son Henry, and Josh Brolin as Frank, the manly yet sensitive escaped prisoner who takes them hostage. Over the course of one long Labor Day weekend, Frank falls in love with Adele and she with him, two damaged, fragile souls finding sustenance in each other while a confused boy looks on, narrating — a lot — in the adult voice of Tobey Maguire. The movie’s a somber affair, but if you see it in the right frame of mind, it’s the guilty-pleasure hoot of the season.
After he takes Adele and Henry from the local supermarket under threat of violence, Frank spends the first few days making repairs around their house, cleaning the gutters — so much for laying low during a statewide manhunt — and baking the best scones this side of the New Hampshire State Prison for Men. Ultimately he works up to a peach pie and instructs mother and son in the arts of fruit-whispering and proper crust maintenance. The climax (as it were) comes when Adele holds the top layer of the crust with trembling hand and Frank orders her, with sexy authority, to “put a roof on this house.” It’s like the pottery scene in “Ghost,” except not.
This slurry comes to us from Jason Reitman of all people. At what point does a filmmaker stray so far beyond his skill set that it becomes a liability? Reitman’s previous films — “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air,” “Young Adult” — are about the problematic pleasures of smart talk and the ways wise guys (and girls) can snark themselves right into a corner. With his new film, adapted from a Joyce Maynard novel but reaching back to the luxuriant 1950s weepers of Douglas Sirk, Reitman has tried to make a film wholly without irony. Earnestness is a foreign language to him, though, and he speaks it stiffly. “Labor Day” is a talented filmmaker’s attempt to reverse-engineer a Nicholas Sparks movie: Reitman takes it apart, examines the pieces, and puts them back together all wrong.
There are spaces in this film that the director usually fills with tart cinematic moments — a bon mot, a crisply observant shot — and the void invites only nervous audience laughter. While Griffith has little to do but stare in mute incomprehension (at which he excels), Winslet and Brolin are both pros and they’re a reasonable pleasure to watch. Brolin especially convinces you of Frank’s gentleness and decency in the face of that unfortunate double manslaughter conviction.
Winslet reins in her character’s emotions, and the results are sometimes moving, sometimes mannered; only when Adele lets loose with a little ballroom dancing does the actress touch on the larger passions inherent in this story. “Labor Day” indulges in flashbacking here and there, fancy to the point of incoherence, but while awful things happen in those scenes, they’re presented with the utmost discretion. The movie is that unworkable paradox, a tasteful melodrama.
There are compensations. The final half-hour, as the three plan escape while the outside world inexorably closes in, simmers with existential suspense and the pathos of lovers ignoring the obvious. The clamminess of New England in late summer is captured well and adds to the tension; the film was shot largely in Massachusetts, in small towns from Acton to Shelburne Falls. The supporting cast has its pleasures: Clark Gregg as Henry’s clueless father, Brooke Smith as a nosy neighbor, J.K. Simmons as another nosy neighbor, although the latter’s appearance is brief enough to hint at the editing-room struggles it may have taken to wrestle “Labor Day” into shape.
If so, the movie lost the match. Another story line that never goes much of anywhere involves Henry’s friendship and fitful romance with a young girl named Rachel (Elena Kampouris), new in town and dripping with cynicism about the awful things divorced parents do to their children. With her ratty hair, raccoon-ringed eyes, and natural air of superiority, Rachel comes across as a hyper-literate underage meth addict. In fact, she seems to have wandered in from another movie entirely — one directed by Jason Reitman.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.