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'Labor Day': Workmanlike Melodrama

By Michael S. Goldberger
iBerkshires Film Critic
10:19AM / Thursday, February 06, 2014
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Popcorn Column
by Michael S. Goldberger  

Paramount Pictures
Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) are joined by newcomer con-on-the-run Frank (Josh Brolin) in their New Hampshire abode.

I had hoped that by this time in my career it would be the doorman at "The New York Times" with whom I'd be casually exchanging thoughts on cinema and life in general. However, when the ticket taker kid at the Bijou asked me what I thought of director Jason Reitman's "Labor Day," I was happy to ply my populist manner by first asking a question: "Do you know what schmaltzy means?"

"No," he honestly answered, but seemed ready to learn.

I thought for a second, fighting off the inclination to define a word with the same word, and then offered, "corny." He gathered it in with a smile of recognition, and then I added, "...but in a good-natured, sweet kind of way."

He acknowledged, and I like to think he'll use schmaltzy in conversation someday, perhaps even with the doorman at "The New York Times."

 
out of 4
 

That schmaltzy digression completed, the first piece of business is to note that viewers will subconsciously decide whether or not they're willing to buy into the warm and fuzzy packaging of a tale that, at its heart, is desperate and dangerous.

But the desperation here, dramatically dissected in a triptych of syrupy character studies, is more about personal yearning than strict survival. What amounts to a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome (see Patty Hearst) is put into motion when Josh Brolin's Frank, a convicted murderer on the lam, politely, but with unmistaken threat, inveigles his way into Adele and her son Henry's rather rundown but comfy, New Hampshire abode.

Adele, played by Kate Winslet, is a pretty sad sack, a very nervous divorcee hard put to raise adolescent Henry (Gattlin Griffith) without benefit of his father, Gerald (Clark Gregg). Hubby took off when the starry-eyed, passionate woman came unglued. Henry acquiesces to dinner out with Dad’s new family, perfunctorily attending each Sunday.

While age-appropriately naïve, Henry, also called Hank, is very sympathetic to Mom's needs and condition. One set of movie production notes deems her depressed, another says it's agoraphobia. But the most important diagnosis resides with you. Suffice it to say, whatever the doubtlessly complex pathology, sultry Miss Winslet is entirely convincing.

What, however, may seem a bit farfetched if not untoward to some is how Adele adjusts to the intrusion. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade — in this case it's more like elixir ...and a bit verboten. Tossed into the bargain, Hank sure could use a willing father figure.

Fact is, unapologetically mawkish as director Reitman's script adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel may be, there are startling truths countervailing the treacle. Flashbacks detailing the life circumstances, tragic and happy, that formed these characters serve to rationalize the ensuing relationships. This ultimately includes casting a sympathetic eye on the heartbreaking horror that led to Frank's incarceration.

Now, I'm sure that heretofore it had been eons since anyone visited reclusive Adele and her sweet son. But this is the movies. Thus it only figures that tension and fears — the sort that Hitchcock loved to wreak — come to bear. You know, nosy neighbors dropping in, friendly but suspicious cops stopping by to give one the heebie-jeebies.  
 
Bear in mind, affairs of the heart notwithstanding, Adele is harboring a fugitive — a quandary that might engagingly challenge the wits of a university ethics class on any given afternoon. All the better if the prof spices matters up with some brandy-spiked coffee and little Viennese cakes, as was Dr. Halberstoddter's custom at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College.

You see, there is a familiar conviviality in the innocent predictability of the tale. It's almost, but not quite, as outlandish as the tear-jerking dance Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson do in “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), where he accidentally causes her blindness and then goes back to medical school so he can cure her.

So it is no surprise that this film is destined to spawn two basic camps of viewers — the yeas and the nays. Just as Adele is prepared to put herself in harm's way to realize her romantic fantasy, the former group is willing to suspend their disbelief — even if it means being deemed a sentimental sap — to bask for a moment in a contemporary version of courtly love.

A fellow in my gym, alas, also not the doorman at the "Times," wondered if I had seen the film, to which I answered in the affirmative. He asked: "Do they get him?"

"Do you really want to know," I inquired, implying the irreversibility this information would bode, whilst cautious not to let "Labor Day" compromise my work ethic.

"Yeah, I'm not going to see it." So I told him. He smiled as if he had just saved $9.

"Labor Day," rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Jason Reitman and stars Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Gattlin Griffith. Running time: 111 minutes

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