Depressed single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man (James Brolin) a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.
TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: Even Jason Reitman, whose new film Labor Day [sic] premiered at Telluride this weekend, was embarrassed by his introduction. Before a Friday afternoon screening, a Los Angeles critic introduced Reitman as the heir to Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder. That spot of L.A. blather was sandwiched in between a theatre manager congratulating us for caring about 'actual cinema, as opposed to the glitz of movies," and an archival clip of Richard Widmark complaining of a corporate Hollywood filled with agents and accountants who 'don’t know a bean about a movie."
What begins as a hostage drama veers into Stockholm Syndrome territory...
The crowd went wild. It’s a contrarian bunch here at Telluride, and proud of it. So the Son of Sirk stuff went over poorly, and the director, who is of course the son of Ivan Reitman, had the good sense to reject it, and graciously. Though Labor Day is indeed a melodrama—one that, in outline anyway, might wedge itself into the line of Douglas Sirk. Based on the Joyce Maynard novel of the same name, it tells the story of a severely depressed housewife named Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who encounter an escaped prisoner (Josh Brolin) on Labor Day weekend in 1987. Adele has barely functioned since her husband (Clark Gregg) left her for his secretary, and pre-pubescent Henry (whose older counterpart, played by Tobey Maguire, narrates) is doing his best to play husband. During a rare mother-son outing, a bleeding Brolin approaches Henry, then induces a paralysed Adele to drive them all back to her home.
Over the next few days, what begins as a hostage drama veers into Stockholm Syndrome territory, then emerges into the dewy, sunlit domain of Nicholas Sparks, where the story remains for a kitschy final hour. Early on, when neither Adele nor Henry is certain of their predicament, Reitman creates a promising tension between mother, son, and fugitive. Brolin, whose escape is all over the news, vows not to hurt them, and to leave at the first opportunity. Adele is forced to connect to her instincts, if only to protect her son, and Winslet plays that reawakening with persuasive torment.
Soon, however, Reitman (who adapted the script) shifts his attention to Adele’s sensual reawakening. Brolin, it turns out, is a whiz in the kitchen, and feeds Adele—whom he has bound with rope to keep up the appearance of a kidnapping—chilli with a spoon. The next morning he makes biscuits that appear, in a single bite, to make uninvited contact with every molecule of Adele’s being.
From there the viewer might find herself struggling between the pleasures of Winslet’s deeply lonely performance, along with keen glimpses of Henry’s first, confusing rush of hormones, and the question of whether she’s really buying what-all’s going on. Because it’s a big bill: Brolin leads a pie-making tutorial; Brolin fixes up the house; Adele and Henry persuade Brolin to stay a little longer; Adele and Brolin finally get down, then plan for a fugitive future; Adele confesses to issues that caused her depression, which made her feel like a prisoner; and Brolin—a fellow prisoner, you see—replies, 'I came to save you, Adele. Tomorrow that’s exactly what I’m going to do."
Now, I may not be the target audience for Labor Day. But I’d like to think I’m not so far from a depressed housewife that a strapping convict vowing to 'take 20 more years just to have three days with you" should have no effect. Even so, the part of me that resisted Labor Day’s story of impossible love began to win out, and I was left feeling like I had watched something less—an impossible love story. Which is not a crime. And even if it were, as our noble felon and the great Douglas Sirk might point out: context is everything.