By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
What Knocked Up did for pudgy slacker potheads, Labor Day is now doing for escaped convicts. (Note to wardens everywhere: After viewing this film, battalions of lovelorn ladies may be battering down your prison gates.)
Granted, Josh Brolin’s Frank Chambers is far from your average jailbird … but his people skills are sorely lacking. Seriously, who chooses to make new friends in the middle of a busy store, all the while appearing desperate and bleeding from a wound? Yet of all the people in this small New England town, Frank somehow intuits that timid divorcée Adele (Kate Winslet) will acquiesce to his insistent request for a ride … driving him to her house, no less. When she initially refuses, Frank puts his hand on the back of the neck of Adele’s 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), intimating that he may do him harm if she doesn’t comply.
And so begins the tale of a long Labor Day weekend between a co-dependent mother and son, and their convict houseguest. Who says three’s a crowd?
This project — adapted from Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel — seems oddly out of sync for writer/director Jason Reitman. He ventures from his earlier sense of the sardonic (Young Adult, Up in the Air, Juno, Thank You for Smoking) into Nicholas Sparks territory. Or, if you will, think 1995′s The Bridges of Madison County meets 1955′s The Desperate Hours.
While affecting in part, ultimately this movie falters. For one thing, Reitman’s script appears to be a jumble of previous drafts. We’re introduced to a local fellow who has a crush on Adele (a wasted mini-scene with J.K. Simmons) that goes nowhere. We meet a meddlesome neighbor (Brooke Smith) who, suspecting that the “handyman” is indeed the convict, inexplicably holds her tongue. Much is made over the fact that Adele and Frank might drive away in her car, with the son misinterpreting their actions as abandonment … yet nothing comes to fruition. Additionally, inanities occur: Adele keeps her television on as news updates/warnings and accompanying photos of dangerous convict Frank splash on the screen, all during the time when a handicapped child is visiting the house. The assumption that the child wouldn’t be able to relay his concern is feeble at best. And though neighbors live close by, not one of the three principals are concerned that Frank could easily be spotted during his frequent ventures into the backyard.
As for Frank himself – another strong performance by the underrated Josh Brolin – Reitman has crafted the character as a woman’s fantasy of the ideal man. He may be unemployed and a murderer on the run, but that pales in significance to his various abilities as an expert handyman, a mechanic, a launderer, a chef and a baker. He’s also a savvy baseball coach, teaching young Henry how to hit and throw a baseball (as depicted through a gauzy haze of idyllic perfection). The drawn-out flashbacks that explain the incidents leading to his imprisonment could have occurred once, maybe twice, rather than standing in for a prodigious side plot. What with the camera constantly delving into back stories, or showing Frank brushing his teeth as if this were a documentary on dental care, these scenes are simply overkill.
However, the flashbacks used to flesh out Adele’s story are much more judicious. Initially, we can’t understand why she’s so damaged, and the gradual reveal is highly effective (although somewhat manipulated in order to bring tears to a mostly-female audience). Adele’s emotional journey is palpable, externally exhibited as her dowdy, ill-fitting outfits give way to revealing sundresses. Once again, Winslet confirms her reputation as one of the finest actresses working today; we are reminded that few leading ladies can hold a lengthy wordless expression on camera quite like she can.
Her Adele and son Henry superbly play off each other. Griffith’s performance is riveting as a burgeoning young man who feels an almost husbandly responsibility to his agoraphobic mother. Griffith (Changeling, Green Lantern) portrays the character’s conflicting emotions with the ease of a far more experienced actor, conveying a mix of joy and jealousy as his mother sparks to this stranger. Henry would like to resent him … but he can’t, given Frank’s seemingly genuine fatherly attention.
Perhaps if this movie had delivered a stronger story with some bite, had been edited to a well-paced clip, and if Frank had been allowed to exhibit a few human imperfections, this particular Labor Day would have been, um, far less belabored.
Rating on a scale of 5 Bridges of New England County: 2.5
Release date: January 31, 2014
Written and Directed by: Jason Reitman
Based on the novel by: Joyce Maynard
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire
Running Time: 111 minutes