Title: Labor Day

Paramount Pictures

Director: Jason Reitman

Screenwriter: Jason Reitman, from Joyce Maynard’s novel

Cast: Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith, Brooke Smith, Clark Gregg, J.K. Simmons, James Van Der Beek, Maika Monroe, Alexie Gilmore, Tobey Maguire, Bri

Screened at: Paramount, NYC, 11/12/13

Opens: December 27, 2013 in LA, January 31, 2014 elsewhere

As this film moves along at a steady pace, occasionally stopping for flashbacks, you may be thinking, “Hey, this doesn’t sound believable.” True enough: the romance between a convicted murderer and an innocent, divorced woman may not be something that has occurred to any of your neighbors, but stranger things have happened. Apropos, think of Stockholm Syndrome, the concept that a kidnap victim develops empathy for her abductor, even trying to defend him. When Patti Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, this nineteen year-old would-be heir to her father’s fortune not only bonded with her radical-left captors but joined them in holding up a San Francisco bank, where she was filmed with an M1 carbine yelling orders to the customers.

Jason Reitman’s “Labor Day” is representative not only of Stockholm Syndrome but of its reverse side known as Lima Effect—wherein kidnappers develop so much sympathy for their victims that they release their hostages unharmed even if ransom had not been met. My advice, then, is to curb your criticism that this story is incredible—it is not: it is just unlikely—and savor the slow buildup of emotions between two adults who each have understandable reasons for their emotions and actions.

The story opens on Labor Day, allowing two people to spend a long weekend together, a five-day period in which the element of danger adds to their passion. Adele Wheeler (Kate Winslet) is a lonely, divorced woman with one boy, Henry (Gattlin Griffith) about to enter seventh grade in a small town (filmed by Eric Steelberg in rural Massachusetts). Gerald (Clark Gregg), her husband, has flown the coup with his secretary with visiting rights to his son just one day a week. We suspect that Gerald did not give enough time to the boy, a role that becomes filled by Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a five-day father figure who has escaped from prison where he is serving an eighteen-year sentence for murder and who insinuates himself into the home of Adele and Henry.

Frank is a charming fellow, but so was Ted Bundy: we in the audience are therefore alert to any sudden event that would turn him into a killer once again, as he becomes the classic father-figure to the boy, teaching him how to bat and throw a baseball, a lover-figure to Adele, teaching her how to bake a peach pie, and an it’s-so-nice-to-have-a-man-around-the-house fellow who cleans the rain gutters on the roof and changes the oil in the family car. All events are seen through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Henry, who looks with awe at the criminal whom he spots snuggling with his mom, a middle-aged man who becomes in just five days the guy he’d dream about for a dad.

Director Reitman is perhaps best known for “Juno” though anyone with taste knows that his masterwork is one of the best movie satires of modern times, “Thank You for Smoking.” He develops a humorous, even satiric subplot from the budding friendship between Henry and a purportedly anorectic girl (Brighid Fleming) a year or so younger but with much greater knowledge of sex.

The implausible is made credible by the growing chemistry between Adele and Frank, a romance that is not rushed and one that covers its bases by showing Adele as a nervous, affection-starved woman and Frank as a man who has just spent several years in prison without female companionship. Henry is emerging from a boy to a young man, changing his facial features dramatically between freshman and senior year in high school. (His role is played by three young men.) He intently watches every detail in the relationship of the two adults in the home, his curiosity furthered by his chats with a girl about his own age—all happening on a single, long weekend where the kid learns more about life in a few days than he will in all of seventh grade.

Rated PG-13. 111 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-

Acting – B+

Technical – B

Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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