Star power can’t keep food-centric romantic drama out of the goop
Starring Josh Brolin & Kate Winslet
Directed by Jason Reitman
PG-13, 111 min.
An escaped murderer from the state prison shanghais a single mother and her 13-year-old son, forcing them to drive him to their New England home. Then he ties the mom to a chair…
At this point, you might be thinking of several places a chilling scenario like this could lead. But only in the overheated, food-fantasy romance-drama that is Labor Day would hunky con-on-the-lam Frank (Josh Brolin) begin spoon-feeding lovelorn, rope-restrained divorcee Adele (Kate Winslet) a hot meal of his homemade chili, then proceed to fill the big, empty hole in her heart.
Based on a 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, Labor Day is set over the steamy three-day 1987 weekend of its title, as Frank then bonds with Adele and her son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and they become a “family” despite their unusual, unorthodox and stressful situation. It is hard to have a relaxing barbecue, tune up the station wagon in the driveway or play a game of backyard baseball, after all, with a nosy neighbor (J.K. Simmons) dropping by to remind you of the dangerous felon on the loose, or the local cop (James Van Der Beek from TV’s “How I Met Your Mother”) tacking up “Wanted” posters and constantly patrolling past your house in his cruiser.
If you don’t already know by the time things get to the “pie scene,” those three squishy minutes alone will likely decide just how much of this hook, line and sinker hooey you’re willing to swallow. As Frank tutors Adele and Henry in making a peach confection (“A little bit of tapioca,” he purrs, guiding Adele’s shaking hands to sprinkle the seasoning “like salt over an icy road…”), it’ll either strike you as one of the most beautiful, erotic things you’ve ever seen, or a ridiculous, hoot-worthy spoof the two stars could be doing on an episode of Saturday Night Live.
And the movie totally overcooks its symbolism that homemade food means real love, stability and family bonding, while restaurant meals and fast-food milkshakes represent shallow men who leave good women, families split apart by divorce and parents who don’t know how to communicate with their kids.
Director Jason Reitman has made some fine movies, including Juno, Up in the Air and Thank You For Smoking, with some real satirical bite and teeth. But this film doesn’t have any bite, or teeth, because it’s mostly goop. Brolin and Winslet, fine actors both, do their best, but they’re fighting an undertow in a sea of cheese, and the movie fails to fan their coals of passion into anything resembling a flame. Young Griffith gets his own subplot as Henry navigates the emotional minefield of teenage hormones.
(If you’re reading the opening credits—and listening closely to the narration—it won’t be much of a surprise to find out the identity of the Recognizable Actor who pops in to play grown-up Henry at the end of the movie.)
“I came to save you,” Frank tells Adele. Well, you might save me another slice of that peach pie, or a bowl of that chili, or one of those breakfast scones, but nothing else on the menu of this preposterous holiday roma-drama is worth reheating.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine