Critical Mass: Is 'Labor Day' a peach? Or the pits?

Labor-Day.jpg

Image Credit: Dale Robinette

Typically, it’s not considered savvy to open a movie on Super Bowl weekend, what with more than 100 million spending their Sunday afternoon on their sofa, eating nachos, guac, and buffalo wings in front of the Big Game. But Jason Reitman’s Labor Day might qualify as counter-programming. Based on Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel, the film tells the melodramatic story of a fragile divorcee (Kate Winslet) whose rare excursion out of her house and into town with her 13-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith) is hijacked by an escaped fugitive (Josh Brolin) who demands refuge. But while he looks threatening, he’s a mild soul, and before long, he’s just what the boy and his mother are looking for: a father-figure and a man of the house.

“Once back at the house, Frank ties up Adele, pausing to tenderly caress her foot before spoon-feeding her some chili that he’s whipped up in the kitchen,” writes EW’s Chris Nashawaty. “At this point, even the most voracious reader of Harlequin romances might let out an embarrassed titter. But that’s just a warm-up for what comes next: the peach pie. Ay-yi-yi, the peach pie.”

The peach-pie scene aims to do for pastry what Ghost did for clay, and viewers will either swoon or eye-roll. The earnest romance is a departure for Reitman, the director best known for Juno and Up in the Air, but with another powerful female performance and supporting cast (Tobey Maguire, J.K. Simmons, Clark Gregg, James Van Der Beek), Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t have to be all about football.

Before you head to the theater, read what some of the nation’s leading critics are saying about Labor Day.

Chris Nashawaty (Entertainment Weekly) ▼
“Until now, it looked like Jason Reitman could be his generation’s answer to Billy Wilder. … Reitman specialized in the kind of saw-toothed satires that come packaged in dark, cynical wrappers. But with his latest film, the mawkish and melodramatic Labor Day, Reitman has done an unexpected about-face: He’s ditched Wilder for Douglas Sirk. And the swap doesn’t do him — or his fans — any favors.”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times) ▲
“In lesser hands, Labor Day could have played like an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, what with the dark secrets and the us-against-the-world love affair. But Reitman is too skilled a filmmaker to let the sentiment overpower the story. There’s just enough edge here to keep us guessing about Frank and his true motivations.”

Todd McCarthy (Hollywood Reporter)
“Jason Reitman is arguably unsurpassed as a contemporary American director of actresses, and his work overall on this simple but delicate story of a lonely single mother’s quickly blossoming romance with an escaped convict is skillfully modulated.”

Stephen Holden (New York Times) ▼
Labor Day seems designed for the crowd that devours Nicholas Sparks’s romantic daydreams. If it’s a hit, it could generate an uptick in prison correspondence from lonely women to roughnecks behind bars.

Ty Burr (Boston Globe)
“Reitman has tried to make a film wholly without irony. Earnestness is a foreign language to him, though, and he speaks it stiffly. Labor Day is a talented filmmaker’s attempt to reverse-engineer a Nicholas Sparks movie: Reitman takes it apart, examines the pieces, and puts them back together all wrong.”

Eric Kohn (IndieWIRE)
“Winslet delivers a compellingly subtle riff on domestic frustrations by conveying volumes of her hardships with her eyes alone. Brolin has played tough guys before, but here he pulls off the tricky maneuver of turning a cliché into a strangely likable mystery man whose own back story … turns his initial air of cruelly on its ear.”

Claudia Puig (USA Today)
“Even the presence of top-notch actors can’t save this melodrama. Kate Winslet does her best to make her character convincing, but the absurd material leaves her floundering.”

Ann Hornaday (Washington Post)
“It’s difficult to believe a word of Labor Day, but then again you don’t have to in order to luxuriate in Winslet and Brolin’s bubbling, steaming chemistry.”

Anthony Lane (New Yorker)
“You have to feel sorry for Brolin. Here was his chance to play hot and nasty, instead of which he ends up presenting a do-it-yourself domestic dream: how to build a family in a weekend.”

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle)
“So why, oh why, with a price on his head, do they keep forgetting to lock the front door? And why oh why do they not pull down the shades? For that matter, why does he hang out on the back porch serenading Adele on guitar? They can’t ask the audience to take their problems seriously if they don’t.”

Peter Debruge (Variety)
Labor Day brims with such carefully observed details, all of them a little too elegant to feel entirely genuine, and yet impossible to fault — apart from the underlying premise, of course, which is plenty troubling: that a misunderstood killer is just the father/lover this incomplete family needs to feel whole again.”

Labor Day
Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 52
Rotten Tomatoes: 33 percent

Rated: PG-13
Length: 110 Minutes
Starring Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith
Directed by Jason Reitman
Distributor: Paramount

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