“The world will pardon my mush,” goes the Gershwin brothers’ 1928 song, I’ve Got a Crush on You, and since the tune has been sung and recorded every decade since then, presumably the world did. How the world will feel about Jason Reitman’s mushy Labor Day is another question. Certainly it’s a departure for the director who made his name on such acerbic comedies as Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Labor Day, which Reitman adapted from a 2009 novel by novelist, Joyce Maynard (To Die For), falls more into The Bridges of Madison County or The Notebook area.
The mush here is literal, and peachy. In a pivotal scene, escaped prisoner Frank (Josh Brolin) takes the hand of Adele (Kate Winslet), the woman he is holding hostage, and shoves it into a pan of mashed peaches. Sometimes, says Frank meaningfully, the best tools are the ones attached to our own bodies.
Adele’s 13-year-old son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who narrates the film, looks on in astonishment. His mother’s hands started trembling, he tells us, and could not stop. This is followed by a time-lapse image of a pie in the oven, swelling to a golden rippling tumescence. The year is 1987 and Henry is telling us this story from his adult perspective (voiced by Tobey Maguire). No surprise Henry grew up to become a baker.
Much of Labor Day eventually becomes soft-core erotica; initially it’s filled with autumnal restraint, as the opening scenes find us drifting in slow-motion through a leafy New Hampshire suburb, while Henry tells about his big Labour Day weekend. Henry’s mother has been deeply sad ever since her divorce. It wasn’t about losing her husband (Clark Gregg) who left her for his secretary, but “rather, losing love itself.”
Adele is hunched over, with downcast eyes. She’s also agoraphobic, leaving Henry to do her chores and banking, except for a monthly trip in the station wagon to the local PriceSmart discount store. It’s on one of these back-to-school shopping outings when Frank, sporting a seeping bloodstain on his undershirt from a recent appendectomy in a prison hospital, approaches Henry. He then leads Henry to his mother, and with his hand around the back of the boy’s neck, scares them into taking him for a ride. He’s polite, but forceful: “Frankly, this needs to happen,” says Frank frankly.
As they drive back to the house through the leafy suburbs, the music growls and thrums with menace.
Then, less than half an hour into the film, the menace disappears and the movie goes soft and gooey. Frank cleans the floor, does the laundry, fixes the loose floorboard, changes the furnace filter, and teaches Henry how to throw a curveball. He’s the perfect husband, the perfect dad, but this is also, of course, a sexual abduction fantasy. On the flimsy excuse that Adele needs to prove she’s not willingly helping a fugitive, Frank also ties Adele up. Then he spoon-feeds her the chili he has made, as if she were a baby. (I suspect there must be websites where you can watch people tied up and spoon-fed; it’s creepy). Of course, that causes Adele to fall in love, but given her tremulous yearning gazes, you get the impression the same thing might have happened if she had brushed hands with the mail man.
Later in the film, Adele tells Frank – in a gruelling series of flashbacks – the long ordeal of miscarriages and other misfortunes that drove her into a depression.
“I came to save you, Adele,” declares Frank.
Well, not precisely. As you recall, he was escaping from prison, and she looked especially vulnerable in the PriceSmart that day. As the television news reports keep telling us, Frank is a convicted murderer and eventually in overlit flashback sequences, we see what drove him to crime, as a young military vet with a run-around wife, but as he says, “I never intentionally hurt anyone” which stretches the meaning of the word “intention.” Oddly, Frank is out and about cleaning eavestroughs and rotating tires in the driveway of the single mom’s home, while the whole town is obsessed with the dangerous stranger in their midst. Such lapses in logic are constant in the film – the trains don’t run on Labour Day weekend but the library is open? – which, presumably, is a way of saying love makes its own rules.
Henry, stirred by all the passion in the house on that fateful long weekend, has time out of the house to develop a quick adolescent crush of his own and finds a confidant in a sassy sarcastic new girl in town (Brighid Fleming), who warns him that sex drives adults insane and the new man in his mother’s life will cause her to abandon him. Henry has his moment of doubt, but he knows better: Passionate people, like his mom and Frank, are superior people.
They’re definitely better than Henry’s dad or his new wife with her oversized glasses and cliché-filled speech, or his inarticulate jock half-brother. They’re far better than the the horrible neighbour mother (Brooke Smith) who dumps her physically and mentally disabled son at Adele’s house and slaps the boy when he tries to tell her what’s going on.
Perhaps this is the reason why I can’t pardon Labor Day’s mush, not just because it’s mush, but because it comes with an unappetizing side order of condescension and contempt.