Ordinarily, one might fault critics for clustering their reviews of a movie around a single rhetorical figure. But when a movie builds to a scene as sticky with symbolism as Labor Day, it’s hard to resist taking a bite. Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel was touted as an awards contender before it was unveiled at Telluride last September, but once audiences got a taste of the overcooked romance between Kate Winslet’s rural divorcee and Josh Brolin’s escaped convict — and especially the scene where their incipient bond is cemented by the making of a sensually photographed peach pie — its hopes for year-end glory fell like a lopsided cake, and it was shoved to the wrong end of January. In other words, you can’t blame critics for following the movie’s lead and helping themselves to a slice of hot, delicious pie metaphor.
Catherine Shoard, The Guardian
Good news for peaches…. They form the filling in the world’s most sexually charged pie, cooked up by escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) and Kate Winslet, playing an agoraphobic single mum, Adele, who takes him in over the course of a long, hot Labor Day weekend. Alongside Adele’s 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) they squelch and prep, prime and roll, instructed by Frank, who delivers kitchen tips of such extravagant eroticism they’d make Nigella blush (sample: “You are right on the verge of crumbing at any moment”). This scene is the cherry on the cake of a film which feasts on the sensual potential of the domestic. It is Reitman’s version of the pottery wheel episode in Ghost: all hands on deck, all kneading and feeding.
And as the trio plunge their hands into the glucosic goop in the bowl on the kitchen counter, working over the dessert’s fruity innards in glorious food-porn money-shot close-up, it will occur to viewers that we are expected to take this seriously. The meaningful glances between adults, the gently plucked guitar notes on the soundtrack, the dusky amber light of the cinematography, the undercurrents that suggest, somewhere behind the camera, Reitman is high-fiving himself and softly muttering: “Take that, Tom Jones slurping oysters!” We are supposed to find this erotic. Instead, we’ve discovered a metaphor for the movie. We’re in the middle of a large, syrupy mess.
In the movie’s blissed-out, inescapably ridiculous centerpiece, he teaches Adele and Henry how to stew a heap of ripe fruit and roll out pastry, with just the right amount of seasoning (a “salty crust” is crucial). When he guides Adele’s hands onto the rolling pin, you expect “Unchained Melody” to pipe up at any moment. “Help me put a lid on this house,” he tells them pointedly when the top’s going on.
[W]e 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.
A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
On the other hand, maybe the film’s true love story — perversely, perhaps accidentally — is between a boy and his mother: Before Frank saunters in, Henry offers Adele “husband for a day” coupons, failing to grasp which of her needs he can’t satisfy; later, the two lay together in a hammock, Adele attempting to articulate to her offspring how sex feels. In nearly incestuous moments like these, it’s as though there’s a weirder film threatening to poke through Labor Day’s mundane surface, like a fork breaching the golden-brown crust of one of Frank’s delectable pastries.
Chris Willman, The Playlist
Getting earnest is swell, but for anyone who thought emotional complexity would be a hallmark of all Reitman’s films, that peach pie is a little hard to swallow.
Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly
Labor Day never comes anywhere close to developing into the sexy Stockholm-syndrome drama it wants to be. It’s just pseudo-romantic hooey. But I will say this: As ridiculous as its creation is, that peach pie looks damn good when it finally comes piping hot out of the oven.
Scott Tobias, The Dissolve
The pie-making sequence is pivotal in Labor Day: It’s the moment where the audience has to believe that Adele trusts or desires (or some balance of both) Frank enough to risk her life and her son’s life on a convicted murderer. The way it plays so laughably, like a scene from a gussied-up romance novel, fatally damages a drama that never entirely finds its rhythm…. It’s a James M. Cain story with a James Ivory execution, and the whole thing lands like a sack of wet flour.
Jocelyn Noveck, Associated Press
If you’ve seen the trailer for Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s film based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, then you’ve caught a glimpse of a new breakout star, who threatens to upstage even the estimable Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin…. We’re talking about the peach pie…. [I]t’s hard not to feel that this movie could have been so much better than it turned out. Something we won’t say for that pie. That pie is perfect.
Amber Wilkinson, Eye for Film
Earlier this year, David Lowery took a magic hour-drenched, mythic vibe and lovingly crafted Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a tale of love and possible redemption. Now, Jason Reitman takes surprisingly similar elements — a conviction that may have more to it than it seems, a woman at home alone with a child, and an unexpected possibility of romance — and employs similar sun-dappled lensing to concoct the mawkish misfire that is Labor Day…. And in this movie bake-off, Lowery produced something natural, airy and light with a lingering and unique flavor, while Reitman’s effort feels too full of studio additives and overcooked.
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
To be fair, the climax is surprisingly touching; somehow, the residents of this cooked-up tale manage to earn our pity and support. That, again, is a sign of melodrama at work, and we can confidently expect a sequel, in which Frank teaches Adele how to master a basic banana split. I can picture it now: Labor Day 2: I Want to Talk About Cream.