In Labor Day, a woman falls in love with the man who takes her hostage, but the movie goes out of its way to make that journey easy for her. He’s an escaped convict, but wouldn’t you want to escape prison too? And he’s a murderer, except maybe he’s not really a murderer, just unfairly convicted. And, sure, he holds her captive in her own home, but not for one minute do you ever think he’s going to hurt her, or her 12-year-old son.
She’s depressed and rarely leaves the house. So how else is she going to meet a good-looking guy, except in a hostage situation? And the son needs a father figure, someone to show him how to swing a bat and change a tire. This is win-win for everybody, but it’s too win-win — a setup that short-circuits drama, that shoehorns a situation into a precooked formulation: He’s a real prisoner and she’s an emotional prisoner, and each offers the other the possibility of freedom.
If only Labor Day didn’t make things so easy, it might have been a better film. For example, imagine if he really were dangerous — then falling in love would not be such a given. By cutting off every possible avenue that the story may travel but one, writer-director Jason Reitman ( Up In the Air, Young Adult) makes the movie’s path discernible to all, to the extent that we really do know everything before it happens, sometimes a full hour before. The overall effect is drippy, not emotional but sentimental.
Still, the situation has enough inherent drama and the performances enough truth that Labor Day maintains interest. Kate Winslet is Adele, a shy divorced mother for whom a trip to the grocery store is a major excursion. She has lost all her confidence and most of her ability to face the world, when she meets Frank (Josh Brolin), who, with suggested threats, makes his way into her car and then her house. Outside there’s a manhunt, while inside Frank soon is making chile and baking peach pies.
Throughout, it’s as if the performances, grounded in reality, are in collision with the requirements of the story. Though it’s always a bit of a waste to cast Winslet as an introvert, she brings a world of pain to Adele’s every utterance, just as Brolin brings the heavy aura of a tortured history to Frank. We believe he has been through hell and wants desperately to remain free and with this woman.
So why oh why, with a price on his head, do they keep forgetting to lock the front door? And why oh why do they not pull down the shades? For that matter, why does he hang out on the back porch serenading Adele on guitar? They can’t ask the audience to take their problems seriously if they don’t.
With no obstacles to their forming a bond, there’s really not enough story to the Adele-Frank relationship to fill out a movie. And so, Reitman, who adapted Joyce Maynard’s novel, gives us flashbacks, both to Frank’s past and to Adele’s past. These are unwelcome, but even worse is the story’s shift in favor of Adele’s 12-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith), who develops a cliched friendship with a cliched sassy girl from the big city.
The soundtrack is intrusive enough to notice. Sometimes it’s a single acoustic guitar, mournfully noting the sadness of common folk. Sometimes it’s a reverb sound subliminally underscoring moments of tension. Except the effect isn’t subliminal.
Labor Day is a film of many faults. Yet even if we never fully believe in Adele and Frank, we end up caring about them, and that’s some kind of achievement.