In "Labor Day," a lonely single mother gets the holiday weekend she's always desired with the prince charming she so desperately needed. The catch? He's a fugitive convicted of murder who has more or less trapped her and her son in their own home. But that's a meet-cute as good as any according to the film, which doesn't pay this troubling premise much notice. It's a syrupy, over-the-top valentine to Stockholm Syndrome that would make the cheesy romance novels you buy off a supermarket shelf blush.
This all sounds like something that would have been fun to hate-watch or mock-tweet, "Sharknado" style, had it been a made for TV feature. But the problem with "Labor Day" is that it's a Lifetime movie operating under the delusion that it deserves an Oscar. It has all sorts of flourishes – enigmatic flash backs, melodramatic orchestration, an overdrawn Georgia small town setting – and it brings in very serious, acting-with-a-capital-A performances by Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, who should have known better.
It's also a disappointing turn for the film's director and writer Jason Reitman, whose past films ("Juno," "Up in the Air," "Thank You for Smoking") had intriguing premises that were executed with impressive nuance and cleverness. Even his most polarizing film "Young Adult" had its defenders.
But all the serious themes the film is trying to explore – which boil down to sex screwing up people's judgment – come off as rather silly, and "Labor Day" forgets them by its neatly-resolved, feel-good ending, anyway.
Adele (Winslet) is a haggard, reclusive woman, left by her cheery husband (Clark Gregg) for the secretary, and living in a claustrophobic home with her 12-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) in 1987. The film, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, is told from Henry's perspective as he looks back as an adult and he explains that he tried to fill the role of father and husband for her. There is one husbandly duty that he can't do (he's talking about sex!) and already the film sets up the question: However will poor Adele ever get laid?
Our man-on-the-run/knight-in-shining-armor Frank (Josh Brolin) shows up sneaking around their local superstore. He comes off as extremely menacing for a few moments – think ominous music, mysterious blood stains, that whole little-boy-looking-up-at-a-big-bad-scary-man camera angle – but he convinces Adele, with very little effort, to let him lay low at her place for a couple hours.
It doesn't take long for the film to show its cards on where this is all going. Not soon after, once Frank, Henry and Adele arrive back at the house, Frank ties her up to a chair – "for appearances" – in a manner that is treated so sensually and delicately by the camera that it comes off like some bondage fantasy that is somehow also wistfully romantic.
But Frank eventually unties Adele because he's not actually a "bad guy" and to convince us that Frank is not a bad guy, "Labor Day" fashions him as the perfect gentleman: the type of guy who volunteers to do the ironing, who plays catch with your son, who blows on the chili he cooked you to cool it down before he spoon feeds it to you (because you're tied up still). The set of household chores he does for the landlords he's claimed against their will is astounding – how does one remember how to change the oil in the car, fix the bathroom tiling and bake a pie after 18 years in the slammer?
It's all so contrived and ridiculous that one can almost imagine alternate film as a dark comedy where all the laughable moments in "Labor Day" were actually being played for laughs. Telling is that a tangent in "Labor Day," about Henry's crush on a greasy new girl (Brighid Fleming), that seems to be there just to provide comic relief makes for the film's most – if only — interesting moments.
Winslet and Brolin are trying so hard to make it all work it hurts to watch. Tobey Maguire shows up too, late in the game for an inexplicable cameo, as does James Van Der Beek, whose involvement in this is actually fitting, considering the weird, meta-joke that has been his post-"Dawson's Creek" career.
But everyone else – Reitman included – appears to have sacrificed their immense talent to a conceit that would have worked just as well or even better with a tenth of the budget and ten times the self-awarenesss. "Labor Day" only belabors its point.