Jason Reitman saw a movie in Joyce Maynard’s 2010 novel “Labor Day.” And what a movie it is.
Fair to say it works as a tearjerker. Reitman pulls off a deceptively straightforward romance that seems old-fashioned given the current studio antipathy toward dramas.
The writer-director gracefully intercuts several plots and narrators in different time frames–it starts in 1987– to reveal the back stories behind depressed Adele (Kate Winslet) living in New England solitude with her 12-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who tries to fill the void left by his departed father (Clark Gregg), who lives happily with his second family. On an outing to the store, the mother and son are commandeered by a threatening escaped prisoner (Josh Brolin) who makes them drive him back to their house. He has jumped out of a prison hospital window and needs to rest before taking off again. A manhunt for the escapee is under way, and the trio hide behind closed doors over the long weekend, as the convict gently ties up Adele (“for her protection”), and cooks and feeds her supper as her son watches.
He turns out to be a good cook. Adele’s bite into a fresh biscuit signals her awakening attraction. Soon the trio settle into a family routine: baseball lessons, chores and repairs around the house, and a sensuous bout of pie-baking. All three of these lonely people blossom under each other’s attention. But this man is a murderer, we learn from the nightly news, and when he’s threatened by various intruders at the door, he goes into survival mode. What did he do? Are his feelings real? Is he safe?
Reitman takes us on a ride that never flags and often surprises with real emotion. He gracefully deploys multiple flashbacks, which are not easy to manipulate. Winslet has trod some of this ground before, as her mousy Mildred Pierce also harbored a strong sexual drive. This delicately sensual performance earned her a Golden Globe dramatic nomination (she was overlooked by the Screen Actors Guild). But Brolin matches her as a strong, dangerous and sexy leading man.
Clearly the movie plays better for women, who buy into the improbable romance, than men. (It’s at 61% on Rotten Tomatoes.) After a Labor Day weekend launch at Telluride, Paramount pulled back on an Oscar campaign in favor of a January wide release. I’d like to think that movie-loving adults will spread the word to audiences around the country that it’s ok to make these movies. Still.