Bless the people who can get through Labor Day without cracking up a few times, for they are made of stronger stuff than I. This story of Adele (Kate Winslet), a helpless, sex-starved single mother (for reals) who gets quasi-kidnapped by rugged escaped con Frank (Josh Brolin) and ultimately falls in love with him, is so silly, so retro in its values, so preposterous from beginning to end, it plays like a parody of a 1950s melodrama.
The film is narrated (tremulously, of course) by Tobey Maguire as the grownup version of Adele’s 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Grifflith), so if there was concern that Henry and his mom are in real danger and might not make it out of this ordeal alive, that’s pretty much dispelled.
But how could anyone see Frank as a threat? He’s the most hilariously idealized male I’ve ever seen in a film. The first day he kidnaps Adele and Henry, he changes the oil in their car, fixes the furnace, teaches Henry how to throw like a boy, inspects Adele’s firewood (she's been over-charged), and whips up a batch of chili (that he hand feeds to Adele, as she’s tied up in a chair to make the kidnapping look more legit in the eyes of the authorities). Later, he fixes squeaky door hinges, takes off his shirt to reveal rippling biceps, dances the rumba with Adele, and gives mother and son a lesson in how to (sensually) bake a peach pie. All the while, young Henry is torn between loving his new father figure and being overcome with Oedipal rage (the film literally cuts to Henry glowering jealously every time Frank touches Adele).
What to make of all this? I frankly don’t know. Everyone involved is talented—from Winslet, who is one of my all-time favorite actresses, to Brolin, who is the rare American actor who can project masculine strength and decency (lately we’ve been outsourcing that role to Australians). Director Jason Reitman has made three films I love (Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult), although there’s a secret conservatism lurking at the edges of those films that he really doubles down on here.
The film is certainly well acted and directed, for what it’s worth. I guess I’m just going to have to give these guys a mulligan. Whatever they were going for, they didn’t achieve. Unless they were trying to give me a few good sneaky laughs behind my hands. In which case, well played.