If nothing else encouraging can be said for Jason Reitman’s Labor Day—and little will be—the first 40 minutes, at least, are the beginnings of a convincing kidnapping flick. We’ve hardly been introduced to young Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith) and his anxious mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), when a rare trip to the grocery store tangles their afternoon with that of Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a bleeding prison escapee in desperate need of a place to lay low.
The abduction plays out in suspenseful, almost real time; it’s a few moments before Henry realizes what’s going on, while Adele understands immediately. Frank makes himself clear with a squeeze to Henry’s collarbone, and the three make their way through the checkout line to the parking lot. Adele asks his destination, and Frank replies as though it were obvious. “Your house.”
Labor Day’s intentions skew romantic early on, and Reitman cuts the danger with a tame sensuousness that keeps Frank’s intentions obscure. He promises to stay out of the way and take off after sundown, but in the morning he’s still there. He gently ties Adele to a chair for what he says is her own best interest, to bolster the fiction of Henry and Adele as unwilling captives well before their willingness has been established. When a neighbor (J.K. Simmons) pays an unexpected call, Frank’s grip lands halfway between Adele’s heart and her windpipe. Frank’s every move speaks equally to the sensitive soul he claims to be and the ruthless criminal from the TV news, ready to do what’s necessary to avoid capture. We’re left to take his vague word for it that they’ve got him all wrong.
Unfortunately, Labor Day is only effective as long as it can keep its own feelings about Frank Chambers under wraps, a stretch that ends just as a riotously tender pie-making demo begins. (YouTube it someday.) It’s a polite nod to the PG-13 audience that Frank is neutered by honor as he and Adele come together, but the film’s brief assurance stumbles quickly into dreadful self-seriousness. Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) has always been a patronizing filmmaker; his unduly celebrated dramedies are defined by their smarm. With Labor Day, he splits this sensibility into opposing liabilities: It’s too contrived to be believable and not cynical enough to be interesting.
It’s not hard to imagine success in a more daring take on the idea. (They’ve already got Winslet, no stranger to psychosexual malaise.) But Reitman’s script—and presumably the Joyce Maynard novel on which it’s based—moves the other direction, playing as safely as possible. Its three leads seem reverse-engineered from whatever emotional context makes their arrangement the least challenging for the audience, from Adele’s crippling post-divorce anxiety to Henry’s deference as he realizes that playing husband to his shut-in mother can only go so far. Frank’s own back story is so simplistically tidy that Reitman resorts to dreamy, splintered flashbacks, gracelessly building to a revelation that’s hardly worth the tease.
Labor Day isn’t entirely free of ideas. Some undercurrents, particularly on the baggage of sexuality, even function beyond melodramatic ploys. But the main effect of all the wallowing in sex and family loyalty is a spotlight on the movie’s daffy gender politics. Adele is hollowed out by romantic loneliness and maternal anxiety, then brought back to life by the touch of a good man who will play catch with her son and fix the leaky pipes. (Seriously, there are multiple segments in which Tobey Maguire, narrating as a grown Henry, simply lists off the odd jobs Frank does around the house.) This pulp-romance outlook is more boring than objectionable, really, but it’s of a piece with the courtship as a whole—blind to nuance and verging on camp.
What’s left of the suspense—total package or not, Frank is still the subject of a manhunt—never matches the first act, even as Henry wrestles with informing his remarried father (Clark Gregg) about the situation or a neighbor (Brooke Smith) foists her son on Adele for the afternoon as Frank looms upstairs. The latter leads to a powerful moment, as Adele and Henry compromise themselves in the face of the film’s single bit of violence. But Labor Day’s snowballing corniness eventually flattens its moral intrigue, and the last bit of suspense along with it. It goes terribly wrong by being the sort of movie where things could never go terribly wrong.