One name for Hollywood that's stuck is "The Dream Factory," implying a big-screen projection of our fantasies. The trend of late favors the fantasies of tween-age boys (of all ages), as played out in "genre" pictures, but the new drama Labor Day steps out in other directions.
Set in 1987 small-town New Hampshire—and based on Joyce Maynard's bestselling novel—Labor Day concerns broken-woman divorcée Adele (Kate Winslet, stuck in blandly stricken mode) and her thirteen-year-old boy Henry (Gattlin Griffith). Adele suffers from severe depression and mild agoraphobia, which have rubbed off on Henry. The boy stays close to his fragile mother's side, hopelessly trying to provide her with the comforts only a husband can provide her. Socially underdeveloped, Henry enjoys movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, all of which reflect a yearning for a rite of passage guided by an external "force."
Just such a force arrives in Frank (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict who demands to hide out in Adele and Henry's home, doing so over the five-day Labor Day weekend. And here's where Labor Day becomes ridiculous. Despite carrying the whiff of brutality he needs to impose himself on Adele and Henry, Frank is laughably upheld as a near-perfect man. Instantly taken with his new charges, he shows a soulful sensitivity to their every emotional need. Within hours of playing house, he has adopted the roles of husband and father, and his "wife" and "son" wish the rest of the world would just leave them alone in domestic bliss.
Frank embodies a laughably precise, even parodic, archetype of a fantasy male: he says all the right things, does much-needed car and home repairs (including cleaning out the gutters), and has "a catch" with the boy. He also takes rumba lessons from Adele, one of many opportunities Frank takes to nuzzle up to his willing captive. Late-August sweat-sheen on all three points of this family love triangle supplements the increasingly sultry vibe. And then there's the pie-making sequence.
Screenwriter-director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) shoots the sequence with a blunt eroticism that has drawn comparisons to the pottery sequence in Ghost, but forgive me for being reminded more of its parody in The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear. There's also a snicker-inducing sexuality to the intimate close-ups of Frank binding Adele's hands and bare feet (just, he explains, so she can say he did—without having to lie).
Labor Day's most genuine, tender passage comes in a flashback explaining the source of Adele's grief, and there's something to be said for the knowing depiction of the moment a boy edges into puberty and begins to see the world in starkly different terms (Gattlin's near-blank restraint of expression makes him easy to read into emotionally, as does the hindsight narration provided by future man-self Tobey Maguire).
Unfortunately, the overall impressions left by the film are the suggestion that one long weekend is enough time for a boy not only to become a man but to experience a lifetime's worth of "father-son" bonding (with an escaped-convict stranger, no less), and the offensive stereotype of a female basket case who, more than anything, needs a strong man, preferably a bad-boy hunk with an easy touch for her and a slow hand for a Swiffer. I suppose this fable of domestic desire is no more or less indulgent than the genre fantasies Henry enjoys, but Labor Day's real-world milieu makes all the risible difference.