Director Jason Reitman abandons any hint of the smirk that his previous projects, like “Juno” and “Up in the Air,” wore so well for his recent tearjerker “Labor Day.” An utterly serious drama starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, this film was undeniably moving, but ultimately the plot was too carefully tied up, and some elements overshot drama and landed in melodrama.
Kate Winslet can’t really do any wrong from an acting standpoint and this was no exception. She is believable as a heartbroken, fragile woman, raising her young teenage son alone after his father divorces her and marries a new, easier to handle woman. Winslet’s son, Henry, is a very sensitive youth trying to take care of his mom, and the story is narrated from his viewpoint as an adult, by Tobey Maguire. I’m not a fan of this device.
During one of the pair’s rare shopping trips, a bloodied Josh Brolin approaches them and forces himself into their car. On the run from the police after escaping prison via the hospital, Brolin is an intimidating figure that insists he stay in their home until the heat is off. He quickly establishes himself as a rather decent fellow, and both mom and son soon begin to respond to this hunky new father figure.
Thus begins a rapid, sexy spiral into Stockholm Syndrome via home improvement projects and oil changes. This part really amused me, as it was basically like housewife porn from the Lifetime network. Winslet swoons as Brolin cooks chili, changes a tire, fixes the porch and even mops the floor. We see that the way to a woman’s heart is through handyman tasks. He’s not necessarily wrong, mind you, it’s just a little clichéd. Soon the whole family is baking a pie together, and things really … heat up.
This film is based on a novel of the same name by Joyce Maynard, also known as that girl who lived with J.D. Salinger when she was a teenager, which isn’t really important to the plot, I just think it’s an interesting fact. So I can’t blame it on the male writer/director that the female lead is rather a simplified desperate housewife character, but I take issue with the idea that she was a sad shut-in waiting for a new man to come along and change her lightbulbs.
On the other hand, both Winslet and Brolin do complement each other; we see their sad background stories and it’s clear that one of the ways in which they fulfill one another is as parents, as a family. You’re pulling for them as a couple, even as events spiral, predictably, downward. After the heartbreak shown in the movie, the film’s concluding scenes seem even sillier. The fact that the little boy grows up to be a pie baker because of that one special pie was just too much for me, but less curmudgeonly types might not object as stringently to the story’s sappy, happy ending.