Frank (Josh Brolin) is a dream catch for lonely single mom Adele (Kate Winslet).
By JON NICCUM
Special to The Star
The man’s got rugged good looks. He cooks dinner, repairs appliances and cleans the gutters without being asked. He teaches her 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), how to properly hit a baseball. He’s gentle, confident, romantic.
Oh, he’s also an escaped murderer.
That’s the screwy premise for “Labor Day,” an amusing dose of housewife porn for the Nicholas Sparks crowd. Despite the Oscar-caliber talent involved, which includes writer/director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air,” “Juno”), and a heart-pounding third act, the erratic drama is best enjoyed for its camp value. There are some unintentionally funny moments in the “nobody puts Baby in a corner” league.
Set in 1987 for no apparent reason, the film introduces us to Adele and Henry as they fritter away the hours in their New Hampshire clapboard house. She’s a head case who desperately longs for a man, and he’s a quiet loner who could use a father figure.
During a trip to the store, they run into Frank and can’t help but notice his wounds.
He asks rather threateningly for a ride, then takes them “prisoner” in their own home.
“How do I know you won’t hurt us?” Adele asks.
“I’ve never intentionally hurt anyone in my life,” he replies.
Adele’s fear turns to opportunistic lust faster than Frank can change out of his bloody clothes. So the three spend the holiday weekend evading police, lying to neighbors and making big plans for the too-good-to-be-true future.
Much of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 coming-of-age novel remains intact, including the viewpoint of its narrator, leading to lots of needless “Wonder Years”-style voiceover by an adult Henry (Tobey Maguire). Yet this adaptation is also quite cinematic, rife with atmosphere and heavy on symbolism. (It’s shot beautifully by Eric Steelberg, who also lensed Reitman’s “Young Adult.”) For a while, there’s almost a dream logic to the events, as if it’s being remembered from the idealistic viewpoint of youth.
Of course, this can also be a crutch to explain the nutty lapses in logic that permeate the screen. Frank changes the oil of the family station wagon in the front driveway — this despite police continually driving by, hoping to spot the convict.
“Nothing misleads people like the truth,” he spouts to excuse his strategy.
Meanwhile, Adele makes decisions that no parent on earth would unless they were trying to justify the awkward plot. Her handling of Frank’s initial requests should be required viewing for school kids on what to not do when approached by a stranger. True, the film sets her up as being mentally unstable — that’s certainly how her ex-husband (Clark Gregg) views her. But there’s “whimsical movie crazy” and then there’s “reckless endangerment crazy.”
Somehow all this ridiculousness builds to a very tense and resonant third act while the trio attempt to flee town. That bout with reality is quickly forgotten in favor of an absurd epilogue.
Impossible to forget, however, is the film’s howlingly hilarious signature scene in which Frank teaches his new captives how to make a peach pie, a la the steamy pottery-wheel scene in “Ghost.” (Just to clarify: This scene isn’t supposed to induce laughter.)
An apparent baking savant, Frank meticulously leads his team through the prep work, finding ways to cradle Adele throughout the messy process. He erotically plunges her hands in sugared peaches and they orgasmically knead dough together. Henry looks on with awe. This culminates in Adele shaking like a Chihuahua as she prepares to flip the crust used to cover the pie, treating it with the same consideration she would if defusing a bomb.
Frank calls this action “putting a roof on the house,” as if his domestic role needs further explaining.
The only thing that could make this sequence funnier is if Eugene Levy walked in to find Henry humping the pie.