Thursday, January 30, 2014

'Labor Day' asks us to take a big leap

It might be the most congenial hostage situation ever.

I'm talking about the premise of director Jason Reitman's Labor Day, a movie about an escaped convict and the mother and son he takes as hostages.

Reitman isn't interested in a situation that grows increasingly bizarre, but in one that becomes more ordinary as the movie unfolds. I guess that qualifies as a counter-intuitive approach, but it results in a movie that strains credibility.

Those familiar with Reitman's resume -- Thank You For SmokingJuno, Up in the Air and Young Adult -- will realize that with Labor Day, the director has taken new direction. He has turned his attention to a drama that's cleansed of the kind of quick-witted ironies that have characterized his best work.

Beautifully photographed by cinematographer Eric Steelberg, everything about Labor Day suggests a movie that demands to be taken seriously -- everything that is except a story that derives from Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel.

Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay, takes us to a small New Hampshire town in 1987. There, we meet Henry Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith), a teen-ager who lives with his depressed and isolated mother Adele (Kate Winslet).

During a shopping expedition to a local store, Henry and Adele are confronted by an escaped convict (Josh Brolin).

Brolin's Frank forces himself into the lives of mother and son, insisting that they take him to their home. He needs a place to hide until he can figure out his next move.

But here's the twist that challenges both expectation and perhaps common sense. Nice guy Frank, quickly assumes the role of father figure to Henry, who badly needs one. He also develops a slow simmering relationship with the love-starved and sexually deprived Adele.

The escaped con becomes an idealized savior: handsome, sexy and totally competent at household repairs. Frank even knows how to bake a peach pie. In a sensuously photographed sequence, Frank shares his baking artistry with Adele, who (to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot) eventually dares to eat a peach. She falls for Frank.

Movies have a way of creating their own realities, which is to say that they needn't be entirely credible to keep us involved. That's why it's possible to go along with Labor Day, which features an attractive cast and pulls us into the lives of its characters. I guess I'm saying the movie is never less than watchable.

Some of the credit for that accrues to the actors. Brolin conveys Frank's anxieties as well as his boundless capacity for being a helpmate. Winslet is convincing as Adele, a woman whose pain isolates her from the world, and Griffith makes a credible adolescent, a young man who has become an accomplice in his mother's insistent isolation.

Once Reitman aligns our sympathies with Frank and Adele, the movie's major tension revolves around whether Frank will be caught. Will the couple be able to continue their strange romantic idyll, preferably beyond the reach of the law?

I won't spoil the ending, but there's another sort of tension here: the unease that derives from our knowledge of other films and maybe even from the real world. Suffice it to say that few films could take this kind of scenario and turn it into an affirmation of family, devotion and the power of love.

Reitman rounds out the stories of Adele and Frank with flashbacks that can be a bit confusing, and a couple of side trips turn out to be unimpressive: Henry meets a new girl in town (Brighid Fleming). Trouble arises when a neighbor leaves her handicapped son in Adele's care.

Look, families and other tightly knit groups have a way of manufacturing their own realities. Labor Day understands that, but -- in the end -- I had trouble buying a story about a likable convict and the woman whose emotional life he saves.

When the lights came up, I found myself asking whether what I'd been watching -- though well-crafted -- really made sense.

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