For a moment, it seemed like Jason Reitman could do no wrong, following up his excellent directorial debut, “Thank You for Smoking,” with one great movie after the next, and earning a quartet of Oscar nominations in the process. But even the best filmmakers are capable of making bad movies, and though “Labor Day” isn’t a complete failure, it’s the director’s weakest film by a country mile. Based on the 2009 novel by Joyce Maynard, the movie represents a major departure for Reitman, who’s made a name for himself telling stories with a dark comedic bite. That trademark humor isn’t present in “Labor Day,” instead replaced by the kind of gooey sentimentalism that you’d be more likely to find in a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, which leads me to wonder what Reitman was even thinking.
Set in a quaint New England town during Labor Day weekend in 1987, the film stars Kate Winslet as Adele, a shut-in single mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown. During a rare excursion outside to take her teenage son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) clothes shopping for the new school year, they’re approached by a wounded stranger named Frank (Josh Brolin), who takes Adele and Henry hostage and holes up in their rundown house with the intention of making a run for it at nightfall. A convicted murderer who escaped from the hospital while recovering from an emergency appendectomy, Frank insists that there’s more to the story, and as they spend more time with the supposedly dangerous fugitive, he turns out to be a pretty nice guy. So when Frank ends up staying the next day to do some repairs around the house, Adele and Henry don’t complain, and before long, he’s accepted as a part of the family, serving as a father figure to Henry and passionate lover to the fragile Adele.