Jason Reitman’s tremulous romantic drama Labor Day is an unintentional howl — a party movie begging for an audience armed with pie crusts, ropes, and a mean streak. It’s so terrible it’s amazing.
The film is based on a Joyce Maynard novel, a wet Oedipal fantasy with a dash of kink that turns family-friendly with a vengeance. The narrator is the grown-up Henry (Gattlin Griffith), a pubescent lad whose father has decamped and whose mother, Adele (Kate Winslet), has become a virtual shut-in — shattered, says Henry, not by the loss of her husband but the loss of “love itself.” He tries to replace her ex but it won’t take. He’s not of age. And then, as if out of his fervid imagination, in steps an escaped prisoner, Frank (Josh Brolin), a hunk with ropy muscles who takes refuge in their home to nurse his injuries and wait for a passing train. “If someone came by,” he tells Adele, “I would have to tie you up,” and so he does, winding rope in close-up around her wrists and fleshy calves. He pulls a pack of ground meat out of the freezer, browns it, chops an onion, adds a couple of cans of tomato sauce, and finishes it up with a generous splash of coffee. Then he feeds it to his hostage, first blowing gently on the spoon. Before you know it, he has whipped up some biscuits, too. Adele tastes one, closes her eyes, chews slowly, opens her eyes, and gazes on him as if she has found God. Soon, Frank is fixing the sink and the car and teaching Henry to catch a baseball, all the while sweating manfully in the late summer heat. My wife turned to me and said, “I want one.”
Reitman has announced that the book moved him to tears, and he has labored (the title is apt) to make an American classic: a coming-of-age movie shivering with eroticism, streaked with flashbacks shot in an impressionistic, catch-as-catch-can style, like a Nicholas Sparks novel directed by Terrence Malick. I didn’t enjoy laughing at Winslet, though, who overacts with all her heart, her eyes signaling fright while her lips and bosom quiver with longing. Frank says he ought to be leaving but it’s no, no, it’s Labor Day weekend, no hurry, wait till Tuesday … When a neighbor brings a bushel of peaches at their fragile peak, he knows just what to do. To the tender strains of a classical guitar, the three muddle the peaches in a big bowl with sugar and then he schools them in the art of mixing pie-crust dough by hand. “A little tapioca,” he says, sprinkling the little beads, “like salt on an icy road.”
A prominent E.T. poster suggests that Reitman is aiming to make the teen-hormonal sequel to Spielberg’s prepubescent fantasy of a fatherless boy longing for a sign from On High. But Labor Day is clunky, schematic, and drawn out. The snake in the garden is a girl Henry’s age who stirs his loins and plays on his insecurities when he tells her there’s a man in the house: “He wants you out so they can have sex … Get rid of him or he’ll get rid of you.” Would Henry blow the whistle on his rival? Will the movie end in a hail of bullets, like Bonnie and Clyde? I won’t tell, but the coda features a line that will echo through the annals of accidental camp: “One day, I came across a familiar-looking pie …” It’s Reitman who’s pie-eyed and drippy.