Movie Reviews
6:54 pm
Thu January 30, 2014

At Home, With Mom And Her Murderous Beau

Originally published on Fri January 31, 2014 7:51 pm

So here's the setup: It's 1987. Frank, a convicted murderer, has escaped from a New Hampshire prison, and he's holding Adele, a fragile divorcee, and her 12-year-old son, Henry, captive in their own house until they eat his chili.

Turns out it's good chili — so good that it inspires Adele, whom the handsome convict has tied up very gently and tenderly, to reminisce about a conversation she and her son had about his sex education class. Seriously, it's some good chili. And did I mention that Frank is handsome?

Later, Adele will free herself, and Frank — who must've been a big help around the prison — will start doing household chores. Changing the oil in the car, replacing the filter on the furnace, washing the floor and waxing it, teaching Henry (whom he calls Hank) to throw a baseball.

All of which is nothing next to what happens when a neighbor leaves a brimming bushel basket at their door. Soon he and Henry and Adele are all plunging hands into a big bowl of cut peaches — massaging them into submission, I guess.

At which point Frank says, "What I want to talk about is crust," and there's another montage of hands smushing sugar, flour and butter. Dough is rolled and piled high with filling, with half reserved for the moment when Frank guides Adele's hands toward the pie plate and together, they, in his words, "put the roof on this house."

At this point, Tobey Maguire — who appears in the film only as the voice of an adult Henry — tells us that Adele's "hands started shaking beyond her control."

And who could blame them? Hilarious, right? Except the movie is entirely straight-faced. I kept thinking, "The guy who made Juno made this? The guy who made Up in the Air?" It's the sort of overcooked melodrama that used to be called a "woman's picture," though no one would call it that now for fear of insulting women.

Kate Winslet trembles vulnerably as Josh Brolin does the studly perfection thing, making it seem that all any woman really needs around the house is a convicted murderer. The filming is as polished as you'd expect from Jason Reitman, and parts of the picture are reasonably suspenseful. (Mostly that's because the music keeps having conniptions every time Brolin comes into a room, but also because kidnapping stories rarely work out well.)

Labor Day may be filled with autumn's falling leaves, but it makes sense that they're bringing it out as a prelude to spring, for the sap — and I do mean sap — is rising.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Filmmaker Jason Reitman has made his reputation with bittersweet comedies, films like "Juno" and "Up in the Air." But today, he's premiering a different kind of film. "Labor Day" is an unabashed romance starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. Whether or not Reitman had trouble with the shift, our critic Bob Mondello certainly did.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Here's the setup. It's 1987 and Frank, a ruggedly handsome convicted murderer, has escaped from prison and is holding Adele, a fragile divorcee and her 13-year-old son Henry captive in their own house until they eat his chili. It's good chili. So good that it inspires Adele, who the raggedly handsome convict has tied up to reminisce about a conversation she had with her son about his sex education class. Seriously, the chili is that good, or maybe Frank is just that ruggedly handsome. Anyway, later, Adele frees herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LABOR DAY")

JOSH BROLIN: (as Frank) When you have to say I tied you up, you won't be lying.

MONDELLO: And Frank, who must've been really handy to have around in the prison...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LABOR DAY")

BROLIN: (as Frank) I could try to help out.

MONDELLO: ...starts angling for the title of dreamiest kidnapper ever. He changes the oil in Adele's car, replaces the filter on her furnace, washes and waxes her floors, and even takes Henry, who he calls Hank - because remember he's rugged - out into the yard and teaches him to play baseball.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LABOR DAY")

BROLIN: (as Frank) Choke up on the bat, hands together.

MONDELLO: All of which is nothing next to what happens when a neighbor leaves a bushel of peaches at their door.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LABOR DAY")

KATE WINSLET: (as Adele) You should throw most of them away before they rot.

BROLIN: (as Frank) I have another idea.

MONDELLO: Soon, Frank joined by Henry and Adele are all plunging their hands into a big bowl of cut peaches - massaging them into submission, I guess. At which point, Frank says, what I want to talk about is crust, and there's another montage of hands smooshing flour and butter. Dough rolled and piled high with filling, with half a dough reserved for the moment when Frank guides Adele's hands toward the pie plate and together, they, in his words, put the roof on this house.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LABOR DAY")

TOBEY MAGUIRE: (as Henry) Her hands started shaking beyond her control.

MONDELLO: And who could blame them? Hilarious, right? Except the movie is entirely straight-faced. I kept thinking, the guy who made "Juno" made this? It's the sort of over-baked melodrama that used to be called a woman's picture, though no one would call it that now for fear of insulting women.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LABOR DAY")

BROLIN: (as Frank) I should go.

WINSLET: (as Adele) You should stay.

MONDELLO: Kate Winslet trembles vulnerably in the presence of Josh Brolin's manly perfection, making it seem as if all any woman really needs around the house is a convicted murderer. The filming is as polished as you'd expect from Jason Reitman, and parts of the picture are decently suspenseful, mostly because the music keeps turning ominous every time Brolin comes into a room. Also maybe because convict kidnapping stories rarely work out very well, even when they're filled with warmth and autumn's falling leaves.

"Labor Day" was originally scheduled to open on Christmas Day, which made no sense, then someone thought better of that and held it until now so it could be a prelude to Valentines' Day, I suppose. Might be best to just consider it an early harbinger of spring. For sure, the sap is rising. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.