Is it more important for a movie to be emotionally honest or physically honest? Do we care how credible the events are if we care about the people to whom they’re happening?
I seesawed back and forth on the answers to those questions right up to the final shot of “Labor Day,” a melodrama that reaches the heart but hardly ever convinces the head.
We absorb details mostly through the eyes of young Henry (Gattlin Griffith), a seventh-grader who lives with his agoraphobic mom, Adele (Kate Winslet), in 1987. On one of their rare forays to a store, a bleeding man approaches them and insists they take him home. He’s Frank (Josh Brolin), a convicted murderer on the run.
Novelist Joyce Maynard had hundreds of pages in which to let us absorb improbable details slowly. Screenwriter-director Jason Reitman does not and force-feeds them to us in rapid succession.
Within a short time of holing up in Adele’s house, Frank is teaching its inhabitants how to bake a peach pie. He becomes the baseball-tossing faux dad Henry wants, the handyman Adele needs, and (by implication) the guy who restores her awareness of her neglected body.
Well, maybe, especially as we see in flashback that Frank’s a family man who unjustly received a life sentence for accidentally killing his wife. (Though I didn’t believe that.)
But within a day of fleeing the prison, Frank stands outside on a ladder, cleaning out Adele’s gutters. When he changes lights in her dining room, he doesn’t bother to lock the door, even after a cop has paid the house a visit. The others, too, behave in ways that nobody harboring a fugitive would consider.
A female friend once told me lapses in credibility don’t matter in a romantic drama because women don’t notice. (That seems insulting to me.) To be sure, “Labor Day” – so named because it takes place over the first long weekend of September – has many touching moments, especially when Winslet explains why her marriage fell apart and she retreated into semi-solitude.
She has become a queen of screen suffering over the last decade, from “All the King’s Men” to “Revolutionary Road” to “The Reader.” Few actresses can play this kind of agonized character better, and she has strong chemistry with Brolin; his Frank seems just tough enough to be self-protective but gently protective of others when given a chance.
North Carolinians may remember Griffith from the 2010 “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which was shot in and around Charlotte; he had the small role of Tim Tyson, whose father investigated a racially motivated murder in Oxford.
Griffith brings the same unvarying, quiet sensitivity to the part of Henry, but it doesn’t wear as well over nearly two hours. Eventually, he grows into the underwhelming Tobey Maguire, who narrates the entire movie as a flashback. That I could believe.
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