JOPLIN, Mo. —
Writer/director Jason Reitman, who previously directed films such as "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Thank You for Smoking," has had a pretty good track record. But his films, while critically well received, haven't exactly lit the box office on fire. Save for "Juno," he doesn't have another film that has cracked the $100 million that designates blockbuster status.
I can only assume Reitman must have noticed the play that romantic dramas are receiving in theaters, so he opted to jump on that bandwagon in his latest, "Labor Day."
Take a rejected Gary Marshall title and couple it with a premise that is as though Nicholas Sparks and the Lifetime television network were to have a baby, and then that baby was raised on a diet of Lifetime movies.
"But Benji," you might be saying, "wouldn't that mean that this horrible spawn were feasting upon its own mother, some unholy form of cannibalism?" Yes, of course it would, and much like mad cow disease witnessed when cattle are fed one of their own, this offspring would suffer from brain deterioration, resulting in what we witness on screen.
Kate Winslet (who should know better) plays Adele, a divorcee who suffers from mental issues so severe that she is rarely able to leave the house and when she does, seems oblivious to the simplest things to do, such as put a car in reverse to back out of the driveway. Fortunately, she has her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who is not only dealing with the breakup of his family but is tasked with caring for his unbalanced mother. On one of Adele's rare outings, she and Hank head to the local clothing store where they encounter Frank (Josh Brolin, who really should have known better), an escaped murderer who is recovering from appendix surgery and who has busted up his knee from leaping from a hospital window.
Frank tells Adele to take him home with her, and rather than scream bloody murder or simply walk away from the obviously injured and unarmed man, she drives him and her son back to her house. Then rather than pick up the phone on one of the many occasions that Frank is out of sight, thus protecting her child and herself, she instead allows Frank to become her handyman, fixing the stairwell, cleaning the gutters, mopping the floor, ironing shirts. It's as though Reitman stumbled across the "Porn for Women" series of humor books showing all of the housework and dishwashing and cooking that men do and thought "This must be what women find sexy!"
Oh, yes, the cooking. It seems that escaped murderer Frank is also a wiz in the kitchen, and after making the group dinner, he then teaches mother and son how to make a peach pie in a scene that looks to ape the eroticism of the "Ghost" pottery scene, only this time including a young boy. The scene goes on for at least a full day and is laughably stupid but darned if Frank doesn't make a mean peach pie, and Adele can't help falling in love with him even though the ones he murdered were his wife and child. Adele ain't exactly the ripest peach on the tree.
The movie goes on to more ludicrousness from there, continuing to try to paint a double murderer as a misunderstood guy who just likes to bake.
The movie is preposterous on so many levels, the script of the film wholly failing to support itself. Adele has a neighbor who brings the peaches by and wants to check on them, knowing that she and Henry are alone and there is an escaped killer on the loose. Yet when Frank spends large chunks of the day doing yard work, no one seems to notice.
I don't suppose I can really blame the actors for their lackadaisical performances. I imagine that both Brolin and Winslet signed on for the prestige of working with such an acclaimed director, but then someone handed them the script. Knowing that the ink was already dry on the contract, there was little motivation for the two to put forth any real effort.
Winslet, who by all accounts is one of our better actresses, seems in a daze during the entire film. Though this is fitting with the addled woman that her character seems to be, it makes her performance about as exciting as watching two hours of C-Span. And Brolin seems to be in such a catatonic state throughout the film that I can only assume that his stepmother Barbara Streisand forced him to listen to her entire body of work and that his mind just shut down as a defense mechanism.
"Labor Day" is without any redeeming qualities. Overly saccharine, completely unbelievable and insultingly pandering, it is a sad fall for all involved.
Benji Tunnell is a movie columnist for the Globe. Contact him at batunnell@ gmail.com.