Labor Day is a total con

The Jason Reitman-directed film doesn't show any of his signature wit or charm

Winslet and Brolin's stilted romance doesn't hold up

Quick, somebody check Jason Reitman's house to see if the real man has been turned into dust by a body snatcher. Though his name's on the poster, it's impossible to believe that the sardonic boy wonder of Juno, Thank You for Smoking, and Young Adult would direct this stilted romance between a divorcée and a dreamboat escaped convict.

After dad (Clark Gregg) ditches the family for his secretary, 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffin) and mom Adele (Kate Winslet) retreat from the world. Adele is one hand-tremor away from a nervous breakdown; the boy is a shy, soulful nerd forced to parent himself and fill his father's shoes. Too sheltered to distinguish between adorable and inappropriate, for her birthday he presents mom with a homemade coupon book titled "Husband for a day."

Winslet and Brolin’s stilted romance doesn’t hold up
Paramount Pictures
Winslet and Brolin’s stilted romance doesn’t hold up

Taking Henry back-to-school shopping is one of the rare times Adele leaves their dilapidated house. As mom frets over his pant size, Henry meets a gut-wounded prison escapee named Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who takes one glance at frail Adele and grunts, "She looks like the kind of person who can help me." He means hide him from the police. But something in this fugitive's eyes says he's the kind of guy who deserves a good massage.

With a squeeze of Henry's neck, Frank strongly encourages Adele to take him home, where he engages in a bit of light bondage by binding her hands and feeding her homemade chili. The music frets as if he may still eat her liver for dessert. But like Hannibal Lecter, Frank Chambers is fictional nonsense — a handsome quasi-kidnapper who promptly decides to change the oil, wax the floors, grout the cellar, quiet a whiny door, bake fabulous homemade biscuits, and teach Henry to play catch.

In the most snortworthy scene, the three of them team up to make a peach pie. Frank is so domestic he calls making the crust "putting a roof on the house," and together, the insta-family members shove their six hands into the fruit. (Maybe they've mistaken it for a Ouija board that can summon Frank's ex-wife to explain why he was convicted of her murder.) Finally, we have a male parallel to the hooker with a heart of gold. Why should Adele call the cops when she's lucked into a Husband for a Holiday Weekend?

Reitman adapted the Labor Day screenplay from a novel by Joyce Maynard, the memoirist best known for shacking up with J.D. Salinger when she was 18. Maynard once fell in love with an inmate named Lucky — or, at least, convinced herself she did enough to write about their correspondence for Vogue — but their relationship never proceeded past being pen pals. She pulled the cord when Lucky said he was coming to visit. (Plus, she admitted, he was ugly.) Good-looking Josh Brolin, a man born to give a gal a sexy squint, feels born of those brief letter-writing fantasies. Not only is he too perfect to exist on earth, he's too flawless even for Hollywood fiction, sticking out of every scene like glossy CGI.

It's disheartening watching Winslet and Brolin give their all to parts that could have been filled by anyone on the Hallmark Channel. This can't be the movie they were expecting when they signed on to a new flick by the director of Young Adult and the novelist behind To Die For, two bleak, acid-perfect romances. At least Winslet's tremors have earned her a Golden Globes nomination, though she could score that with a Vine of herself tying her shoes.

Still, we could all learn one thing from Frank: "Pie crust is a very forgiving thing. You can make all kinds of mistakes, but you can't forget the salt." Fine, Reitman. We'll give you another chance. But take your own advice and kick up the spice.

 
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