Frank Chambers seems like the ideal man. He’s caring, and he loves children. He can fix a creaky stair and repair a busted engine. He cleans. Did we mention that he can cook like a chef on TV, and that he looks like Josh Brolin?
Yes, Brolin’s character in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day is the total package, except for the inconvenient truth that he’s an escapee with a bum leg and a bullet wound, fleeing an 18-year prison sentence for murder. But, as Joe E. Brown’s Osgood famously quipped at the conclusion of Some Like It Hot, “nobody’s perfect.”
Labor Day is partly about people’s imperfections, and our ability to look past them to discover the soul worth redeeming. Frank Chambers appears to be a menacing guy when he accosts 13-year-old Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) in a supermarket at the cusp of Labor Day weekend in rural Anywhere America, circa 1987. He’s introduced from Wheeler’s height, and we see his bloody wound before his face. He pressures the young boy into convincing his divorced mother Adele (Kate Winslet) for a ride, which then becomes a request for lodging once we learn that he’s an outlaw.
But he’s a considerate fugitive, tying Adele to a chair not for his own sadism but for her benefit -- so that she appears a victim should any trouble arise. But as the Labor Day weekend continues, Frank becomes the father Henry never really had; the relationship to his real dad, played by Clark Gregg, is limited to Sunday dinners. Frank teaches him how to catch a baseball, when he’s not baking the perfect peach cobbler or transforming Adele’s shabby home into tiptop shape. Though largely agoraphobic and depressed thanks to previous traumas revealed late in the film, Adele’s emotions gradually sway from trepidation to love, and she becomes a willing accomplice in Frank’s escape even as it dominates news headlines.
Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is an example of Stockholm syndrome writ Harlequin. It is as engaging as it is implausible, and we accept a lot of its ludicrous dialogue and contrived plot decisions because they are so well-acted and directed. For Reitman, who gave us such exquisite, sophisticated films as Young Adult and Up in the Air, a commercial script like Labor Day is of a lower caste, but he navigates its shifts in tone and texture like the season pro he is.
From the suspenseful early scenes to the budding romance to the wry humor of Henry’s encounters with a local wiseacre (a scene-stealing Brighid Fleming), Reitman is invested and impassioned, and we are too. The film’s zenith occurs late in the picture, when Reitman deliriously intercuts between situations in two different locations, each of them ridiculous but which creative a powder keg of tension when rapidly spliced together.
For cineastes, the “B” plot in Labor Day is its most interesting element: Frank’s back story and the quest for his capture. The events leading to his original crime are presented in suggestive, fuguelike fragments that wordlessly draw us in: Terence Malickian gazes exchanged in wheat fields, a romp on a pickup truck, a suspicious glance at a local fair, a monumental leak from a ceiling. It’s a whirlwind of tragic memories, expertly compiled and presented.
But Labor Day is less about Frank than it is about Adele, and moreover, Henry. Reitman respects the novel’s intentions as a Bildungsroman recalled from the perspective of the adult Henry (Tobey Maguire). Gattlin Griffith is really the lead actor, and it’s a wonderfully subtle performance.
During these four days, Henry comes to understand everything from the birds and the bees to complex moral and ethical quandaries that no 13-year-old should be forced to confront. His observant, wide-eyed gazes speak volumes, creating a fully realized counterpoint to some of the silly things the adults actually verbalize.
LABOR DAY. Director: Jason Reitman; Cast: Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith, Josh Brolin, Clark Gregg, Brighid Fleming, James Van Der Beek, Tobey Maguire; Distributor: Paramount; Rating: PG-13; Opens Friday in most area theaters
‘Labor Day’ ludicrous but beautifully acted