Film review: Love blooms awkwardly in a hostage situation in Labor Day

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Labor Day is no picnic for Kate Winslet and James Brolin, who star in the romantic drama based on Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel. Labor Day is no picnic for Kate Winslet and James Brolin, who star in the romantic drama based on Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel.

The story told in Labor Day, about Adele (Kate Winslet), a divorced and depressed mother to young teenager Henry (Gattlin Griffith), and their long holiday weekend with stranger Frank (Josh Brolin), is absurd. See, Frank is an escaped convict who politely but firmly takes Adele and Henry hostage. Then somehow he changes their lives for the better.

In actuality, it’s not a bad set up for a story. Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel on which the movie is based is highly regarded, and a movie’s source material isn’t all that important.

But something is lost in the translation, because what’s on screen is not believable for a second. It’s made harder to believe by the acting. Griffith does well enough, but Winslet and Brolin seem lost as they spout the world’s most earnest dialogue in a story that demands a nod to how ridiculous it is—or considerably more time to develop characters that are this complicated. Flashbacks to Adele and Frank’s lives hinder instead of help, and the voiceover by the older but somehow younger-sounding Henry (Tobey Maguire) really doesn’t help.

It’s 1987. A few days before school starts, Henry and Adele take a trip to a local store to buy Henry new pants. When he goes to peruse the comics, he’s approached by Frank, who’s wearing what looks like a store employee’s apron, a recently blood-stained T-shirt, and a grimace that suggests seriousness.

Before long, he’s talked Adele into taking him home with them. It’s a gentle kidnapping—her depression has left her unable to put the car in gear without help, so being kidnapped doesn’t seem a stretch. In fact, it’s one of the movie’s few honest moments, but it’s also hopelessly contrived. What are the chances the escaped convict will find the woman who, literally, can’t defend herself or her kid?

When they get to Adele’s home, Frank ties her to a chair so it will look like she’s been abducted, and soon he’s making dinner for her, even blowing on the food before he spoon feeds it to her. It’s supposed to be a charming act that humanizes a convict, but the sincerity with which Brolin blows on the food—because it’s so hot!—and the manner in which Winslet takes it—the food is so hot!—is distractingly silly (and just wait until you learn the reason Frank was in prison).

Adele is untied and Frank begins fixing things in the house. Then he teaches Henry to throw a ball. Then he and Adele are in love and plotting a move to Canada.

A lot can happen in three days, especially when you’re severely depressed and need medication. A 13-year-old with a nice but distant father (Clark Gregg) can be influenced. But because each story beat feels contrived, and because each story beat is directed with the gravity of a Bergman drama, Labor Day begins to feel like a parody of itself and convict-with-a-heart-of-gold stories. By the time Frank teaches Adele and Henry how to make a pie—complete with all three kneading the dough together—you’ll wonder whether this is a “Saturday Night Live” sketch that got cut before the broadcast.

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