No one suffers with such earnestness as Kate Winslet. She can stare with a sorrowful glance that embodies every long-suffering heroine from Media to Joan Crawford. (She even echoed Crawford in her Emmy-winning turn in HBO’s "Mildred Pierce.") That ability also helped win her an Oscar (and be nominated six times). There was talk of a seventh nomination earlier this fall for "Labor Day", Jason Reitman’s New Age sudser that was to open around Christmas.
Reitman presence also gave the film Oscar buzz. At not quite 40, he has been nominated twice as Best Director (for "Juno" and "Up in the Air.") He bookended those films with two acerbic satires -- "Thank You For Smoking" and "Young Adult," two films distinguished by sharp dialogue and performances. Little wonder there was Oscar talk.
Everyone is entitled to a dud, so Reitman can take a pass for this unconvincing exercise in the kind-of filmmaking that finds its way to the screen around Valentine’s Day -- a sudsy romantic fantasy that should have gone directly to Lifetime. View at your own risk.
Especially if you have a fondness for Winslet, who has played this sort-of vulnerable, yet oddly tough characters in better films (most recently in Todd Haines’ 6-hour adaptation of "Mildred Pierce.") As Adele, an emotionally challenged divorcee raising a son in a New England town in 1987, she’s more irritating than sympathetic. In all fairness, though, what’s wrong with "Labor Day" isn’t so much the performances by Winslet and co-star Josh Brolin, who plays the improbable character of the sensitive, yet volatile escaped convict; they are just symptoms. No, what makes this film DOA is the story, adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard, about the redemptive power of love. No actors could breathe life into this tired series of romance novel clichés that would likely make Nicholas Sparks blush.
Not that they don’t try: Winslet is capable as the emotionally detached Adele who slowly rediscovers her capacity to love, while Brolin plays the wronged man with a mix of macho bluffness and almost ludicrous sensitivity. At first he’s a cut-from-the-formula villain, bullying Winslet by threatening to do harm to her son; but it isn’t long before the couple are making peach pies together in a food as foreplay sequence that had some in the audience giggling. (’’I want to talk about crust,’’ he tells her...Yeah, right.)
Not long after that, Brolin is in the backyard bonding with Winslet’s son by teaching him how to throw a baseball. That an army of police is looking for him doesn’t seem to enter anyone’s mind as he tosses the ball back and forth in broad daylight. Wasn’t there a pesky neighbor looking out a window wondering who this strange man that fits the description of the escaped convict look like? And why does he shave his beard? It only makes him look more like the artist rendering shown on the television news reports that dot the movie. Just wondering.
But "Labor Day" never lets reality get in the way of its blooming romance between Winslet and Brolin, which has the couple packing up the house and planning a run to Canada. Not that this middle-aged puppy love isn’t without complications: Henry begins to see a rival with her mother’s new beau, which leads to some tension, and a most obvious conclusion. What’s strange is that for a film in which so much emotion is packed into 90-minutes that it is such a lumbering bore. Reitman is clearly out of his element. Who knows what attracted him to this property in the first place?
Whatever the reason, despite a handsome look and a solid performance by Gattlin Griffith as Henry, he clearly has a talent better suited for properties laced with irony and humor. "Labor Day" begins with an interesting premise before dissolving into the worst kind of Hollywood dreck, lacking both tension and conviction. Little wonder it got pushed back to January -- it should have gone direct to VOD.