Enduring Oscar-winner Kate Winslet playing yet another emotionally distressed woman in "Labor Day" is a chore. She's making a career out of showy portrayals of broken women – think "Revolutionary Road," "Mildred Pierce" and "Little Children." But her emoting reaches new levels of melodramatic annoyance in Jason Reitman's headache-inducing and highly implausible weeper.
What happened to the quirky director behind the edgy "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult"? In "Labor Day," Reitman abandons his signature style and steals a page out of Terrence Malick's playbook, employing an ethereal vibe with flashback scenes that interrupt the narrative. He also relies heavily on obvious metaphors, like a hamster spinning on a wheel. Devices such as that might work for Malick, but not Reitman.
"Labor Day," which was unceremoniously yanked last fall from a high-profile Christmas Day launch, unfolds over the three-day holiday weekend in a small New Hampshire town in 1987. Winslet's Adele is the reclusive mother to 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith from Clint Eastwood's "Changeling"). They go back-to-school shopping at the local PriceMart and return home with a pair of corduroys and Frank, an escaped murderer (Josh Brolin) who's bleeding from his stomach. While hiding out at Adele's house, Frank makes himself useful. He fixes her jalopy station wagon, cooks a pot of chili, teaches Henry how to throw a fastball and secures the loose floorboards. In a matter of hours, Frank is the dad Henry had been longing for and the man of Adele's dreams, since Henry's real dad (Clark Gregg) abandoned them.
"I came to save you, Adele," Frank says at one point. Gag.
Adapted from Joyce Maynard's best-seller, "Labor Day" asks the audience to take a gigantic leap of faith and actually believe this flimsy setup could ever happen. Would you house an escaped convict and never ask him what he did, even if he was as handsome as Brolin and could make a mean peach pie? By the way, that "erotic" pie-making scene, where his hand lands on the small of her back as she nuzzles into his muscular chest, is as cringe-inducing funny as the clay-making scene between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in "Ghost." Double gag.
The book was more of a coming-of-age story about Henry told from his perspective. Even with fine voiceover provided by Tobey Maguire, Henry's point of view gets lost in Reitman's script. In his telling, Henry's central turmoil over discovering girls is merely a subplot. Make that a girl, namely the salty-tongued Mandy, terrifically played by Brighid Fleming. Flat stealing the few scenes she's in, she's the character you'd expect to show up in a Reitman movie. And "Labor Day" could have used more of her and less of Winslet.
For his part, Griffith is charming with big brown, expressive eyes. James Van Der Beek ("Varsity Blues") checks in as a small-town police officer who becomes suspicious while driving Henry home on the morning school starts.
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As the hours pass, you know this can't end well. But the end is what you want desperately to arrive because there's nothing to love about this belabored "Labor Day."
Movie review LABOR DAY (PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality). Cast includes Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith. Grade C
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Labor Day Review