Kate Winslet, left, Josh Brolin in a scene from 'Labor Day.'
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Since his 2005 debut as the writer-director of Thank You for Smoking, Jason Reitman has scrutinized the human condition, with dark comedies piercing the messy lives of complicated main characters who are easy to like and just as difficult to love.
Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin take a crack at filmmaker’s first pure drama
Written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on the Joyce Maynard novel. A Paramount release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence, and sexuality. Running time: 105 minutes.
Critic’s rating: ***
Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire.
The filmmaker’s 2012 film, Young Adult, for example, featured Charlize Theron as a young adult author who is funny and engaging — when she’s not berating others in drunken rages or teetering on emotional collapse.
For his first pure drama, Labor Day, Reitman plumbs even darker depths: a love story set in 1987 small-town New Hampshire about a convicted murderer-turned fugitive named Frank (Josh Brolin) who forces his way into the lives of depressed and lonely divorcee Adele (Kate Winslet) and her caretaker teenage son Henry (Gattlin Griffith).
Frank is a tall, muscular, and imposing figure with black hair, a bleeding cut below an ear, and a small but fresh blood stain on a white T-shirt when he first appears at a local mass-merchandise store to ask Henry for help.
Henry is on a once-a-month shopping trip with his mom, who suffers from agoraphobia, and is reluctant to provide assistance to a criminal. But a desperate Frank is persistent and fearsome, so Adele agrees to give him a ride. Of course it becomes far more involved and complicated as the car ride turns into a brief respite at her home, followed by a more lengthy stay — one that is not unwelcomed, but encouraged.
Adele is gloomy about her failed marriage and lost in the tragedies of miscarriages. Yet there is just enough glimmer of light in her eyes to appeal to someone like Frank, a fixer with a large reservoir of patience and perseverance.
Henry, who has looked after his mother ever since his father left her for another woman, is cautious initially of her new-found affections, then happy, jealous, and after receiving advice to be wary from a troubled teenage girl, worried that Frank is stealing his mother from him.
Reitman's Labor Day script is based on author Joyce Maynard's novel of the same name. And while Maynard had the luxury of 244 pages to convince us that kindness, attraction, and romance could blossom in such bizarre circumstances, Reitman has less than two hours of screen time. Working in his favor, though, is Brolin's alternately tough and tender performance that presents Frank as more than a desperate escaped convict, but a man to love and a father figure to embrace.
Through Frank, Adele comes out of her depression, finds love again, and her spirit, while Henry has the male role model he craves, and one that his biological father (Clark Gregg, best known as Agent Coulson from the Marvel superhero films and TV series) cannot be, even though he is still part of his son's life.
And through Adele and Henry, Frank comes to discover the family he once had but tragically lost.
Sensing that he's pushing the limits of credibility, Reitman keeps the film tense, with the occasional visits of neighbors and drive-bys by local police, along with Henry's dad, reminding us that Adele and Henry are harboring a fugitive and that this could all end badly in a moment's notice.
Mixed in the unconventional love story is Labor Day's coming-of-age tale populated with non traditional characters, as Henry learns about love and sex, crushes on a school girl, shares a kiss, and is taught how to be a man. It's a breakthrough role for Griffith as a low-key teenager; kind, selfless, and not given to age-related histrionics. Winslet, perhaps by playing yet another emotionally heavy character, is at her best after Adele rediscovers the joy to living.
There's a sincere and honest mother-son bond that exists between Griffith and Winslet. And, in fact, the trio have a nice chemistry and make for an appealing screen family. Whether you choose to believe it, though, is another matter.
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.