Labor Day: Jason Reitman’s Bondage-Fantasy Romance

Escaped killer Josh Brolin makes chili and whoopee with sad housewife Kate Winslet in this weird hostage love story

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Dale Robinette / Paramount Pictures

He’s handsome, forceful, gentle with children and a great dancer. He can cheerfully fix a flat, clean the roof gutters, oil a squeaky door, caulk a stone wall. He cooks with such sexual authority that, if he had a Food Network show, it would be called The Sensuous Chef. This estimable gent is also a convicted murderer just escaped from prison, and he wants you to harbor him for the weekend in the secluded home you share with your young son.

What’s a lonely woman to say? Hell, yeah!

Watching Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet in Labor Day, some viewers familiar with director Jason Reitman’s work may wonder, Is he serious?

In his early features, Reitman carved an important niche for himself: maker of smart comedies with a sweet or acrid tinge. The social satire Thank You for Smoking was followed by Juno, in which a pregnant teen taught her parents and other adults the meaning of maturity; one of all-time biggest indie-film hits, it earned the director an Oscar nomination and writer Diablo Cody an Academy statuette. Reitman’s third film, Up in the Air, got as close to masterpiece status as any story about a frequent flier (George Clooney) in need of emotional grounding could. It might have taken Best Picture in 2010 if it hadn’t been overlooked in the Oscar custody battle between ex-spouses James Cameron (Avatar) and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker); Bigelow won. Young Adult, from a Cody script about a prom queen (Charlize Theron) who thinks she’s still irresistible 20 years later, danced boozily between slapstick and pathos. Reitman seemed to be testing the audience to find the comic-anguished tone his movie couldn’t quite achieve.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air)

In Labor Day, which had eyes for Oscar but received no nominations, Reitman strides into a new genre: pulp fiction, ladies’ style. For this adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel is a home-invasion drama transformed into a romantic bondage fantasy. Or, as the author and the director want you to think of it, a love story. It’s the equivalent of those tabloid tales of lonely women who visit prisons to talk fervently with, and sometimes marry, death-row inmates — except that, here, the killer comes to the woman. The old (younger) Jason Reitman might have made merry, or at least wry, with this premise. But the Labor Day Reitman is dead serious in his approach to a species of fiction that is fervid, turbid and borderline-implausible.

As in: You will meet a tall dark stranger. He will tie you up and feed you the chili he has cooked, blowing on it before slipping the fork into your mouth. If your response to that gesture is a concupiscent ”Aaahhh!” and not a repulsed “Ewwww,” you will know you’ve met that special someone in this, your very special movie. (Here I must confess to a genetic inferiority: I’m a guy. When I described the finger-licking chili scene and made a frowny face to Mary Corliss, who had not seen the movie, she smiled seraphically and said, “Aaahhh!”)

(READ: Kate Winslet says having three children by three different men helped her play the mother in Labor Day)

Divorcée Adele (Winslet) suffers from a depression that keeps her virtually housebound. Fortunately, her 13-year-old son Hank (Gattlin Griffith) is the most loving caretaker and, to the best of his innocent ability, surrogate spouse. He creates gift coupons that proclaim him Husband for a Day, and devises a Date Night excursion to see the movie D.A.R.Y.L.; the year is 1985, the place rural New Hampshire. Unfortunately — or do we mean fabulously?— the one time that Adele and Hank go to a superstore, they meet the escaped convict Frank (Brolin), his clothes bloodstained, his manner urgent and desperate. He intimidates Adele and Hank into taking him to their home to hide him until the police lose his trail. Since this is Thursday and the movie is called Labor Day, you can figure that Frank will have a long weekend to get to know his captors.

“I won’t let anything happen to my son,” Kate warns Frank, who softly replies, “He’s in good hands.” These hands are now binding Adele to a kitchen chair, so she can watch him make chili. Later, as her resentment cools and her ardor heats up, the three make crust for a peach pie, their hands kneading the dough in a visual ménage à tourte. As the weekend lengthens and neighbors drop by, Adele and Hank grow protective of their guest. Stockholm Syndrome never kicked in so quickly.

(READ: Mark Harris’ cover story on Kate Winslet by subscribing to TIME)

And why not? This killer is divine. He teaches the slightly awkward Hank the fine points of baseball — “When Frank threw me the ball,” Tobey Maguire’s voiceover narration swoonily recalls as the adult Hank, “I hit it.” An artist in the bedroom as well as the kitchen, Frank has kidnapped Adele from her dreary life, abducted her to a level of passion she always desired but never before attained. He is her brute jailor and sweet savior — her sado-Messiah.

Maynard, whose works include the novel To Die For (made into the 1995 movie) and a memoir of her teenage tryst with J.D. Salinger, has written that part of Labor Day was inspired by “a kind of fantasy love affair I found myself in, when I was myself a young and very lonely single mother, living in a small New Hampshire town with my three young children, and I got a letter (first one, then a hundred more) from a man in prison, who seemed to know and understand me better than anyone else. (I eventually learned — when it appeared he was getting out of prison and coming to visit my children and me — that this man was a double murderer.)”

(READ: Elizabeth Gleick on Joyce Maynard’s book about her affair with J.D. Salinger)

She called the man “Mr. Wrong.” But the fictional Frank, as embodied by Brolin with a sympathetic machismo, is clearly Adele’s Mr. Right, and Hank’s too: the ideal father for a boy whose own dad has remarried, and the heaven-sent lover for a sensuous woman. Frank seems the hunkiest saint ever to land on Adele’s Earth; in one scene, backlighting gives Brolin an actual halo. Does Frank even exist? Or is he Adele’s and Hank’s dual dream of how the hole in their lives might be filled? And, if so, will that dream turn to nightmare by Act Three, and Adele realize that she should not rely on the kindness of sexy strangers? (That would throw the cold water of hostage melodrama into the warm bath of  lubricious reverie. But, SPOILER ALERT:  . . . . . Hell, no.)

In his earlier films, Reitman often brought a sharp twist to his observation of complex personalities. Labor Day has one wonderful laugh line: when Adele first lets Frank into her home and says, “You’ll have to excuse the mess” — the housewife’s reflexive apology that she would’ve cleaned up the place if she had known she’d be entertaining a killer kidnapper. But other lines seem either inadvertently funny or paying obeisance to the demands of bodice-ripping fiction, as when handyman Frank says, “Sometimes the best tool is attached to your own body.” Suddenly Labor Day is not a movie but a Harlequin book cover, and Frank is a felonious Fabio.

(READ: Andrea Sachs on the global boom in bodice-rippers)

The director hasn’t forfeited his acuity of place and pace, or his gift for steering good actors to performances that suit the spirit of the piece. Winslet, six times Oscar-nominated (and a winner for The Reader), remains the movies’ sultriest, most sullen madonna. She imparts full weight to Adele, allowing Frank’s appeal to creep slowly over her, like a strange male hand on a female thigh during an overnight crosscountry flight. Brolin, in the most attractive turn of his career, brings as much subtlety as possible to the strangely sanctified Frank. Griffith, who in Green Lantern played the young Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), is fine in another idealized role: the perfect son.

It’s best to concentrate on these excellent performers, and their characters, in the ecstatic middle section of Labor Day rather than toward the end, when a grand conspiracy of plot contrivances kicks in to delay or thwart their destiny. Leave this holy family — mother, son and holy ghost — in the holiday of their dream world. You might also pray that Jason Reitman recovers his sense of humor, which means a worldly sense of perspective, with his next movie. And hold the chili.

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