‘Labor Day’ is so much better at being ridiculous than it is at being serious - The Buffalo News
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‘Labor Day’ is so much better at being ridiculous than it is at being serious

It was a friend of film critic Molly Haskell – whose book about female roles in movies “From Reverence to Rape” remains definitive decades later – who explained the weird paradox of “rape fantasies” being prominent in female fantasy romances.

The name is something of a misnomer, says Haskell. Such fantasies seldom if ever involve real violence or defiling horror, said Haskell’s friend. What they are is more like “Robert Redford not taking ‘no’ for an answer.” (To update that immortal quote, make it George Clooney or Justin Timberlake or Channing Tatum “not taking ‘no’ for an answer.”)

“Labor Day” is about an agoraphobic mother of a teen boy who is kidnapped by an escaped convict doing time for double murder. At one point, he ties her hands behind a chair to keep her from answering the door.

But that, he explains later, was only to give her plausible deniability down the road when the cops come to question her. She can say, without lying, that she was forcibly tied up. We’ve already seen how very gentle the tying process was.

Here’s what he does then and later: He makes her delicious-looking chili and spoon-feeds it to her; he teaches her and her son to make one of the most savory-looking peach pies in movie history; he cleans her gutters, changes her car’s oil and repairs her crumbling garden walls; and he instructs her sensitive teenage son in the arcane mysteries of throwing and hitting a curveball.

By the time this particular small town Labor Day weekend is over, it’s also clear that he’s had with her some of the sweetest sex of both of their lives (very much offscreen and handled with perfect discretion). He has assaulted this dysfunctional mini-family, then, with so much sweetness and so many naked emotional reparations of their lives that mother and teen son are all prepared to run away to Canada with the escaped con.

She withdraws all her money from the bank (no clue there eh, what?) and packs up every major possession in the house.

The traumatized woman is played by Kate Winslet, a movie specialist in being lushly traumatized and sensual. The invading deliverer showering her with gentleness and loving kindness is played by second-generation hunk Josh Brolin. (He’s the son of James, who was, decades ago, removed from Hollywood’s eligibility market by Queen Babs herself – Barbra Streisand, a woman who, no doubt, has her own affections for the kind of man who matter-of-factly changes your oil and makes you peach pies.)

All of this is pure hooey, of course, and the kind of thing so often foolishly derided by critics in the world of female fantasy pulp. It’s based on a recent novel by Joyce Maynard, a weirdly problematic and emblematic writer with one of the more notably odd biographies you’ll find in American letters. (See an interview in Saturday’s Life & Arts section.)

Hooey notwithstanding, I find all of the pure fantasy implausibility of this convicted murderer’s wholesale attack of love and emotional repair absurdly entertaining. It’s when, in the last third of the film, the resolution of Maynard’s tale forces everyone to at least pretend to take it seriously that I found everything so ridiculous I was ready to bolt. I didn’t. I sat through to see if everyone lived happily ever after in Jason Reitman’s fairy tale.

This is the first putatively dramatic movie to come from a writer/director who is one of the best working – Jason Reitman, son of Ivan (“Ghostbusters,” the man who almost brought “Draft Day” to Buffalo for filming). Jason Reitman has, before this, given us some of the smartest and most unexpected comedies of the past 15 years – “Thank You for Not Smoking,” “Up in the Air” and “Juno.”

You have to admire the guy for not only tackling a drama for the first time, but for diving so deeply into romantic female pulp fantasies to do so.

This is a moviemaker who knows how much there is to love in such romantic absurdity. It’s when he forgets that and thinks he’s telling us a story from American literature’s major leagues that he strikes out trying to hit a curveball.

Labor day

2½ stars out of four

Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, J.K. Simmons

Director: Jason Reitman

Running time: 111 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for thematic material, violence and sexuality.

The Lowdown: An agoraphobic woman and her teenage son are kidnapped by a hunky escaped convict who bakes them pies, changes their car’s oil and changes their lives.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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