By Chris Willman | The Playlist January 29, 2014 at 6:16PM
Short of helming a "Smurfs" sequel, it's tough to imagine writer-director Jason Reitman going for a greater change of pace than he has with "Labor Day," a full-immersion exercise in the old-fashioned women's weepie that skews far closer to Nicholas Sparks' brand of contrivance than Diablo Cody territory. Give him credit for breaking with trademark satirical impulses so completely that counting the laughs in his self-penned script—based on a 2010 Joyce Maynard novel—doesn't require two hands. But the (sorry) laboriousness of the plot's romance-novel machinations ensures there'll be at least a few dry eyes in the house.
Kate Winslet goes for even greater heights of post-"Mildred Pierce" mousiness—mostly successfully—as a divorced housewife who's developed such post-split jitters that she can't even consider leaving the house without us getting a close-up of her shaking hands. Her first venture out for groceries in a month goes even worse than she imagines it might, when her teenaged son Henry introduces her to the bleeding escaped convict who's about to kidnap them. Fortunately, said escapee looks like Josh Brolin, and he plans on taking them home, which works out well for an agoraphobic.
The movie enters its dreariest phase as it quickly settles in as a three-hander in which the trio will not only learn to trust one another but begin harboring dreams of becoming the perfect nuclear family. And "perfect" is the only way to describe Brolin's convict, who wants nothing more than to caulk the shower and bake peach pies when he's not wondering how Winslet's smarmy ex (Clark Gregg) ever let such a prize get away. There will be secrets revealed on both sides—oh, there will be secrets! Given the nature of the genre, it's no spoiler to reveal that the murder charge the TV news channels keep trumpeting against Brolin's supposed criminal is thoroughly unjust, and that the real reason Winslet's hubby left only makes her all the more precious to her on-the-lam suitor.
An escape plan to domestic bliss in Canada is hatched, but all three characters make so many repeated blunders in their very occasional interactions with the outside world that it's pretty clear one of their gaffes will finally prevent them from ever attending the Toronto International Film Festival as locals. Get out your hankies, if you're so inclined; the movie is not titled "Labor Day, Christmas, and Beyond" after all.
Winslet does as fine a job of keeping her inherent strength under wraps as much as possible, but Brolin has as little to work with character-wise as he ever has on the big screen, playing an unfailingly righteous, tender and impossibly sexy figure who'd be the perfect man if he could ever leave the house. (Actually, his 24/7 presence makes him even more swoon-worthy). The most impressive turn comes from Gattlin Griffith as the mom-worshipping 8th grader whose shy insularity suggests deeper layers than Brolin's strong, silent type is good for.
The one unintentional laugh from the premiere came during an epilogue that flashes forward into the future from the principal action's 1987 setting. Griffith is digitally aged up a bit and a deep voice comes out of his mouth, which might render as a Mercedes-McCambridge-as-Beelzebub moment in its own right. But the fact that we've heard voiceover narration throughout the film from higher-voiced Tobey Maguire, recalling the film's events as an adult, makes the kid's one line as a baritone all the odder.
Reitman seemed to have achieved a masterful new balance between comic asides and personal tragedy in his last picture, the seriously underrated "Young Adult," which didn't get much traction with either the Academy or public, and he's made as polar opposite a movie imaginable this time around. Getting earnest is swell, but for anyone who thought emotional complexity would be a hallmark of all Reitman's films, that peach pie is a little hard to swallow. [C]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.