Jason Reitman’s Labor Day opens, thereabouts, with a meet cute inside of a grocery store in 1987. Frank (Josh Brolin) bumps into a soon-to-be-7th grader, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who introduces Frank to his mom, Adele (Kate Winslet). Adele, who has been suffering from an acute case of the blues for a few years, brings Frank back to their home. Frank makes them some dinner, spoon feeds it romantically to Adele, and ends up staying the night. The next day, Frank takes to fixing up the house. He’s handy with the car, he cleans the gutter, fixes the furnace, and even takes some time out of his day to teach the boy, Henry, how to throw a baseball.
Within a matter of 24 hours or so, Adele falls madly love with Frank, and why shouldn’t she? He’s the perfect man: Mysterious, good looking, great around the house, a fantastic father figure, and — as it turns out — he knows how to make one hell of a peach pie. He and Adele sit on the porch and chat. They play out in the yard with Henry. They cuddle and fawn over one another, and dance the rumba. They are perfect together, so perfect in fact that Adele’s sads completely vanish as she falls deeper in love with Frank, and they begin to plan their life together.
… oh, wait. I think there’s something I failed to mention. That meet cute at the grocery store wasn’t so much a meet cute as a kidnapping, and the reason why Frank was spoon-feeding Adele was because he had tied her to a chair. Oh, and Frank had escaped prison by jumping out of a second-story hospital window after an appendicitis operation. One more thing. He was in prison for murder, and he was hiding out in Adele’s house to avoid being sent back to prison.
But those are minor points, right?
A few years ago, I watched a Robert Redford movie called Three Days of the Condor (or what my wife likes to call The Misogynist Always Rings Twice). There’s a scene in it where Robert Redford’s character — who is attempting to evade men out to kill him — abducts Faye Dunaway’s character and holes up in her apartment. I forget the exact situation, but I think he handcuffs her to a radiator inside of her small kitchen. You’d think this would be problematic for Dunaway’s character, who is feisty and antagonistic, and who you wouldn’t imagine would have much need for a man that tied her up at gunpoint. But for whatever reason, it turns her on. After Redford’s character roughs her up, they end up fucking. It’s a weird and vaguely unsettling sequence, not unlike watching Kate Winslet’s character in Labor Day fall in love with Frank.
But he’s so good with the grout work, how could she not be smitten?
That’s not the fatal flaw of Labor Day, however. It’s just the most troubling aspect. The bigger problem with Labor Day is that it comes off like a languid, better shot Nicholas Sparks movies, which is not something one expects from Jason Reitman, the guy behind Up in the Air and Juno. It’s too straightforward, too predictable. It’s like Under the Tuscan Sun, only instead of Tuscany, it’s the woman’s own house, and instead of meeting a handsome man, she is kidnapped by one.
There’s no catch, either: A guy escapes prison, threatens a woman’s son if she doesn’t take him back to her house, and then he falls in love with her, and the two hatch a plan to escape together before the cops hunt him down. Everything else is character building, only the character of Frank has only one note: He’s a really, really handsome kidnapper with mad baking and carpentry skills.
It’s not a terrible film, though, just a slow, predictable and implausible one. Winslet is her usual fantastic self; Brolin is suitably hot and manly with just the right amount of domesticity to make him more alluring and not overly threatening, and the kid — who narrates the story from the future (voiced by Tobey Maguire) — is fine, too. Clark Gregg is a particular stand-out in a small role as the ex-husband of Adele and father of Henry
The problem that the performances cannot overcome, however, is that Labor Day has only one way to go. We know that from the beginning, so most of the nearly two-hour runtime is simply a matter of seeing it through to its inevitably sentimental conclusion. It’s basically Nicholas Sparks’ Stockholm Syndrome with a better cast.