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"LABOR DAY"
(2014) (Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A depressed divorcee finds herself falling for an escaped convict who initially takes her and her young son hostage, but then starts to become a husband and father figure to them.
PLOT:
It's Labor Day weekend 1987 and Henry (GATTLIN GRIFFITH) is a 13-year-old who lives with his uber pensive and near reclusive divorced mom, Adele (KATE WINSLET). She's been that way ever since a series of miscarriages and one stillbirth eventually led to her husband, Gerald (CLARK GREGG), leaving her for his secretary. Now, Henry and Adele live in a rundown home and she only ventures out once a month to get groceries and such. It's on one such supply run that they run into Frank Chambers (JOSH BROLIN) in the store, and he suggests to them that it would be a good idea for them to give him a ride back to their place. Rattled, especially upon seeing that he's bleeding, they nervously comply.

He promises that he'll only stay until the night and then be on his way, what with being an escaped convict who jumped from a second story window following an appendectomy. From a news report, Henry and Adele learn that he's serving an 18-year term for murder, although he informs them that they're not hearing the entire story and that he's never harmed anyone intentionally. Even so, they're wary, but when he starts helping out around the house fixing things and teaches the teen how to be a better baseball player, the mother and son start to see an unlikely but possible husband and father figure in him.

As narrated by Adult Henry (TOBEY MAGUIRE), we also learn about young Frank's (TOM LIPINSKI) life, all as an unpredictable bond starts to form between Frank, Adele and Henry, a development they realize is tenuous for certain, although they hope for the best as the holiday weekend plays out: Henry meets a new girl in town, Eleanor (BRIGHID FLEMING): and the police continue their search for the escaped con.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In nature, most animals have a built-in, species surviving instinct of protecting their offspring. Yet, while nearly all of that occurs in a heat of the moment reaction, humans possess the extra survival feature known as worry. And that not only regards what's actually happening at any given moment, but also what maybe occurring elsewhere or might happen sometime in the future.

Of course, such worry covers children of both genders as well as a wide variety of real and potential issues from birth to well into adulthood. One that particularly stands out, however, is the fear that one's teenage girl will end up falling for the wrong guy, usually of the "bad boy" variety. I don't know the particulars of why such girls are drawn to such guys, but many a parent has lost sleep over just that, both in real life as well as countless books, TV shows and movies about the same.

Such an attraction occurs in "Labor Day," but while there's a teen involved, he's a boy and it's his mom who's drawn to the "bad boy" in writer/director Jason Reitman's less than successful, let alone believable, follow-up to previous films including "Thank You For Smoking," "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult." In the film, told from the boy's grown-up counterpart (voiced by Tobey Maguire), the 13-year-old (Gattlin Griffith) lives with his depressed and nearly reclusive mom (Kate Winslet) in the sort of small town where everyone seems to know everybody else.

His dad (Clark Gregg) has left for greener and presumably more fertile pastures, thus leaving the boy to be the "man" around the house. Although, as he points out in hindsight, he wasn't at the time in complete understanding of his inability to fulfill all of his "surrogate husband figure" duties to her (a sort of creepy meets icky bit of incestuous subtext that includes other somewhat related comments, especially -- as stated in hindsight -- upon hearing his mom's later amorous moments with the new man in her life).

And that fellow would be the unlikely Prince Charming, a.k.a. Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), who's just escaped from a prison hospital by jumping from the second story window following an appendectomy. He meets the boy and his mother in a grocery store, and coerces them into giving him a ride back to their place where he can lay low for a while from the law before making his way toward the local train tracks for a ride out of town.

But before that can happen, he goes into domestic mode, repairing an outside wall, changing the oil in the car, washing and waxing the floors and giving the boy a lesson in both baseball and pie making. The mom gets in on the act of the latter in a fairly long sequence that seemingly threatens to turn into something similar to Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze's pottery making moment in "Ghost" and ended up eliciting some (presumably) unintentional laughs from viewers at our preview screening.

Reitman, who's adapted Joyce Maynard's novel of the same name, obviously wants us to be happy that the boy finally has a father figure in his life while the mom starts to blossom once again in the presence of love, attention and kindness. That's all fine and dandy, but there are such glaring issues in the script as well as character behaviors that I just couldn't help myself from being distracted.

The top issue, of course, is that the dude's an escaped con who's been serving 18 years for murder. Yet, while he says the news stories of him don't tell the full story, neither Adele nor Henry ask about those details (we alone eventually learn what happened through flashbacks that arrive in brief spurts where Tom Lipinski plays a young Brolin). Once he starts fixing and cooking, their initial reservations and worries melt away like those warm pieces of pie in their mouths.

Okay, maybe love is blind and all, but the neighbors and certainly the cops on the hunt aren't, and various scenes feature people just popping by the house for a visit. Despite that, the fugitive clearly puts himself out there for all to see while doing those outdoor chores (including cleaning the gutters up on a ladder) and during the baseball lesson montages. And none of the three seem to have any problem hanging out with a handicapped boy who's been dropped off for the day for a bit of impromptu babysitting.

With all of that in mind, this is the sort of film that drives me crazy since a few script tweaks (such as having the family live out in the woods or at least on the outskirts of town, the fugitive shaving and cutting & dying his hair to assume another identity, etc.) easily could have remedied many of the issues and at least given more critical viewers something of a chance to get caught up in the proceedings.

Even so, and despite it feeling like a greater number of days elapses during the flick's just under two-hour runtime, the story takes place over the titular holiday weekend, thus making it hard to believe such deep love, bonding, and plans to head to Canada could so quickly transpire during that short period. That duration also shortchanges a subplot -- where the boy meets the new girl in town (Brighid Fleming) who's preoccupied with talking about sex and trying to convince Henry that his mom is going to run off with Frank and leave him behind -- that never has the time or opportunity to develop into anything notable.

Simply put, I didn't buy any of this melodramatic hokum, and while it's presented nicely (cinematography, score, etc.) and the performances are otherwise okay (motivations and behavior notwithstanding), it just didn't work for me, mainly due to all of the distractions. Perhaps if the boy had reversed roles and become the worried parent figure watching his "girl" fall for the bad boy, my reaction might have been different. As it currently plays out, "Labor Day" has some interesting contextual elements swirling about, but seems to have come out of the oven too soon like an under baked peach pie. It rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed January 28, 2014 / Posted January 31, 2014


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