There might not be anything lazier or less fair, in the annals of movie reviewing, than comparing a film to the book it was based on. But sometimes there’s just no way around it. So even though there’s nothing even remotely negative to say about the cast of “Labor Day,” with James Brolin continuing his impressive work of recent years, Kate Winslet showing how a character arc is supposed to be carried out, and young Gattlin Griffith completely convincing as a lad stuck in a dysfunctional family funk during his coming-of-age years, there’s the elephant in the room of an elegant, dreamy, hopeful, humorous, painful, slightly dangerous book that’s had its teeth removed while being adapted for the screen.
It’s an odd misstep for director Jason Reitman, who has previously won over audiences, focusing on a high quirk factor, with “Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult.” “Labor Day” marks his first attempt at relatively straightforward drama, without any of the odd edges that he’s best known for.
Set in 1987, the film introduces us to a tight twosome – depressed, silently pining Adele (Winslet) and her loner 13-year-old son Henry (Griffith). They’ve become very close since their dad ran off with his secretary to start a new family. But Adele has decided to deal with the situation by making them real homebodies, meaning they hardly ever leave their house. They’re not hermits; Henry goes to school, and Adele drives Henry to stores to do shopping. But that’s done in bulk, about once a month, and antisocial Adele sits in the car while Henry goes in and gets what’s needed.
It’s during a rare trip during which both mom and son enter a department store that Henry is approached by a stranger, a man who is quiet and polite, who is non-threatening but a little desperate, who is bleeding. He’s Frank (Brolin), and he’d appreciate some help, like a ride and, it turns out, a place to rest up for “a few hours.”
The fact that neither Henry nor Adele even blink, but go ahead and bring the guy home, no questions asked, suggests that I might be wrong about that lack of quirkiness. And I might lose all credibility when it turns out that Frank admits he’s an escaped convict, is limping badly, and they still don’t run or cry for help. But except for the fact that his escape is big news on local TV, he was in the hoosegow for murder, and police cars are patrolling the neighborhood, the weirdness of the situation is almost forgotten, almost right away.
Those few hours stretch into a day, and then another. Frank and Adele and Henry subtly become a family unit. Frank does some home repairs, and turns out to be quite the cook (you might want to bring along a notepad to jot down the perfect way to make a pie); he gives some pitching tips to hopelessly unathletic Henry; and there are quiet talks between him and Adele, the words of which we (and Henry) can’t quite make out. Is Frank the husband/dad they’ve been longing for?
Reitman, who wrote the script, has caught much of the book’s wistfulness, and has managed to put across both the story and the essence of its characters without a lot of dialogue. But anyone who’s read Joyce Maynard’s terrific novel is going to have questions about what he’s stripped away and what he’s added, as well as why a few ingredients in the book that didn’t work were left in the film. The argument in cases like this is that changes are made to help the film dramatically. That makes sense, but it can be problematic and confusing when easily understood plot points are presented as brief glimpses of initially unexplained flashbacks, or when too much drama is infused, resulting in unnecessary shock.
Yet there are plenty of people who will see this film without having read the book, and it will likely stand on its own with no problem. And even though the climax isn’t exactly satisfying, and feels a little rushed, the coda following it will leave at least some viewers warmly and happily wiping away a tear or two.
Written and directed by Jason Reitman. With Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith. Rated PG-13.