Josh Brolin’s character in “Labor Day” is so handy. He cleans rain gutters. He mops floors. He bakes pies.
Building a plausible love story between an escaped convict (Brolin) and a lonely, depressed single mother (Kate Winslet) at whose house he hides would seem to require delicate, nuanced storytelling.
“Labor Day” hits us with a rolling pin.
Frank, injured from a jump from a second-floor hospital window after an appendix surgery, spots sad single mom Adele (Winslet) and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), at a department store. With a thinly veiled threat of violence toward Henry, Frank persuades Adele – who already is afraid of her own shadow and rarely leaves her house – to take him home with her so he can lie low for a bit.
Once there, it takes only a few hours for Frank to establish himself as the “man” the house apparently was crying out for. He cooks up a pot of chili, even though it’s hot outside and stuffy inside and everyone’s already sweating. He caresses Adele’s skin as he ties her up.
The tying up is loose, done in case somebody stops by, so it doesn’t look like Adele is harboring a fugitive. It’s just for show. Twenty-five shades of show.
Twenty-five because “Labor Day” is PG-13 rated. Director-screenwriter Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air”), adapting Joyce Maynard’s novel, attempts to compensate with sultry atmosphere and too-obvious metaphors.
Frank blows on Adele’s spoonful of chili before feeding her while she’s tied up. Gauzy sunlight filtering through trees suggests second chances at brightness, happiness, love. The peaches a neighbor brings over – Henry answers the door while a hidden Frank (gently, always gently) puts a chokehold on Adele – are just too ripe.
Frank decides to make a pie. Channeling Patrick Swayze in “Ghost,” Keri Russell in “Waitress” and other non-murderers, Frank lovingly guides Adele’s hands in really getting in there and working those peaches.
Reitman’s light-as-air direction of this sequence is so out of whack with the circumstances of Frank’s presence in the house that “Labor Day” never recovers. And the sequence happens early in the movie.
Oh, and the kid helps make the pie, too. Henry actually is the story’s protagonist and narrator (Tobey Maguire does the voiceover), who is looking back on his long Labor Day weekend with a con in 1987.
This is a problem. Not because of Griffith, a quiet, watchful, believable young actor, but because Henry is the audience’s eyes and ears, and the adults in his house do not tell him everything because he is 12. So the viewers never get the explanation they need regarding Frank’s stint in prison or why Adele would find him a suitable love match.
Stockholm syndrome doesn’t fly when you’ve only known your captor a few hours.
Henry can hear the murmurs of Frank’s and Adele’s voices late into the night as he tries to sleep. It probably was during these off-screen conversations that Frank convinced Adele that whatever he did to merit a 18-year murder sentence was forgivable.
“Labor Day” does offer flashbacks of Frank’s earlier life, but they are too opaque. When they finally do reveal his crime, he does not come off as a sweetheart.
Adele, for much of “Labor Day,” seems like a fool and an irresponsible mother.
At film’s start, when Adele barely can shake herself out of her funk to drive Henry to get new pants for school, Winslet seems authentically vulnerable. You can see why Adele cooperates, even though Frank never brandishes or hints at a weapon. It’s just shock and fear.
But later, when she has chances to run and doesn’t, Adele loses audience sympathy.
Yes, she has experienced tragedy in her life and has been depressed since her husband (Clark Gregg, from “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” destined to play first husbands) left her for his secretary. But she has kept Henry clothed, fed and exceptionally polite despite that depression. It does not make sense for her to endanger his safety now.
Considering how weighted the script is against her, Winslet does a fine job. She shows chemistry with the brawny Brolin, hits every emotional note required of her and brings poignancy to some scenes with young Griffith.
Brolin gives the more interesting performance, playing up Frank’s potential danger even when the escaped con is mopping Adele’s floors. (Not a metaphor.)
Though Brolin’s eyes shine with appreciation in scenes with Winslet, they often hold something darker. The edge he brings to Frank doesn’t suit the movie’s interpretation of the guy. But it pierces the hokum and keeps the audience on alert even when Adele isn’t.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.