Even the great filmmakers have a project or two that history looks back on with an emphatic shrug. “Labor Day,” a profoundly silly, weepy movie, seems destined to be director Jason Reitman’s “Topaz” (Alfred Hitchcock) or “1941” (Steven Spielberg), an aberration in an otherwise successful and accomplished career.
There’s no other way to rationalize Reitman’s work writing and directing this adaptation of a 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard that transforms an absurd housewife fantasy into the stuff of grand romance. A smart chronicler of the way we live now, a master of the dramedy (“Up in the Air,” “Juno”), has temporarily fallen off the cliff.
The story concerns lonely, reclusive mom Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gatlin Griffith), who are taken hostage by prison escapee Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin) in their cozy yet crumbling and isolated New Hampshire home over the course of Labor Day weekend 1987.
Fortunately, Frank is actually a kindhearted man’s man. He fixes stuff. He dances. He teaches Henry a thing or two about playing ball. And he bakes. Oh, does he bake. In the movie’s centerpiece, Frank lovingly walks Adele and Henry through the process of making a peach pie. Reitman packs the sequence with ogling close-ups of the dough being kneaded and rolled; the fruit is massaged and covered with erotic dustings of sugar. Calling it “food porn” doesn’t do it justice.
It’s hard to take any of this seriously. And if you did, you’d start wondering about the message, given that Adele is unhappy, lonely and unfulfilled until a magic elixir in the form of a masculine convict arrives to solve all her problems. Don’t expect a National Organization for Women endorsement, in other words.
Winslet’s performance is too smart for this movie and the character. She transforms a quiet, passive woman into a compelling figure, filling the mysteries and ellipses in this vision of Adele (as perceived by an adult Henry, the film’s narrator) with powerful hints at a haunted past.
Reitman shoots the picture like an ominous thriller, contrasting the honey-toned nostalgia with low angles, scenes of paranoid suspicion and Rolfe Kent’s slow, swelling score. But no amount of fine acting or concerted enlivening attempts could possibly compensate for a story that is packed with nonsense from start to finish.
One and a half stars
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gatlin Griffith