Over the course of this very American holiday, convict Frank escapes from hospital, where he is being treated for appendicitis, simply by jumping out of a window. When he spots Henry, a boy out shopping with his depressive mother, Adele, he sees opportunity. With thinly veiled threats, he convinces Adele to take him to her home where he hopes to lie low until the heat dies down. But, of course, his plan goes awry.
After reading Walter Kirn's superb book and seeing what a hash Reitman made of that, my expectations for Labor Day were low - and I was not disappointed. Here again, Reitman writes and directs; I hope he never repeats the experience, if this is anything to go by. I have not read Joyce Maynard novel on which the film is based, and after seeing this turgid melodrama, I have no desire to do so.
For the life of me, I can't understand why Reitman would choose this book to adapt. Here we are firmly in Nicholas Spark's territory - and that is America's heartland. Labor Day takes place in some unidentified Middle American town. We know this is a place where neighbours call on each other and watch each other's children - and where you can leave your door unlocked. Reitman offers no alternative view; he just trots out one tired cliché after another - the sun-kissed landscape, the clapperboard houses, kids riding their bikes, the diners and milkshakes. It's Coca-Cola colonialism.
There are so many things wrong with this film, it's difficult to know where to start. For one thing, Reitman appears to refract the female experience through male eyes. Adele is supposed to be a passionate, vibrant woman - but we only know this because her ex-husband tells us so. Suffering from severe depression after a series of miscarriages and a failed marriage leaves her virtually housebound. But this is the cosmetic type of depression - the kind where you still wear nice frocks and maintain your personal hygiene - it's just her housekeeping skills that are a bit lax. Her pre-pubescent son Henry senses "something is missing" and tries to fill the void in his mother's life by becoming a "stand-in" husband. But there's only so much the kid can do. Adele is literally waiting for a man to save her. And lo! Frank turns up and ties her up, "for appearances sake", of course. In just three days, Adele is summarily saved. Frank starts by fixing things around the house and cleaning. And he bakes. A lot. Reitman takes us through the entire process of making a peach pie, right from cutting up the fruit to putting it in the oven. (This brought titters from the audience at the screening I went to.)
Then he turns his attention to Adele, but here Reitman stops coyly at the bedroom door. However, we are left in no doubt that the relationship is a sexual one: Henry can hear their coupling through the walls of his room.
What's right about this film is easy: the acting. Kate Winslet is a class act ably abetted by Josh Brolin in what really is a two-dimensional role. A better director would have let these two have more fun with the roles and take bigger liberties. I would like to see a foreign director tackle this material - someone like Jacques Audiard, who directed the excellent Rust and Bone with Marion Cottilard in 2012. Now that would be a film worth seeing.