'Labor Day' is a bit of a chore

Posted: January 31, 2014

I'M TRYING to picture escaped con Humphrey Bogart in "The Desperate Hours" pistol-whipping Fredric March in his suburban home, then going out to clean the gutters.

But I can't, because escaped-con movies used to make more sense. In the old days, on-the-lam convicts who invaded your home did not volunteer to do chores, or play ball with the kids.

And herein lies my problem with "Labor Day," Jason Reitman's somber, sensitive, delicately acted and completely implausible new movie.

It stars Kate Winslet as Adele, a newly single mom grappling with depression that stems in part from her collapsed marriage.

She looks listlessly after her teen son (Gattlin Griffith), though it's more accurate to say that he, full of fear, looks after her. She's an agoraphobe, so he does all the errands, and when at the grocer or the bank, makes excuses for his reclusive mom.

Into their lives comes Frank (Josh Brolin), a convicted murder who's escaped from the local hospital following an operation. No Bogart, he. More like Bob Vila, only ruggedly handsome. Gentle, reassuring, disarming and highly complimentary of mom, he looms immediately as the sturdy, faithful, healing masculine presence that's been absent in her disintegrated life.

The house and the woman inside it are fixer-uppers, and Frank is Mr. Fix-it. He does the masonry work, mops the floors, cooks the meals. Mom's job jar is soon depleted, but her complete wish list is slightly longer. Frank, a full-service handyman, is happy to oblige. He can expect a highly favorable review on Angie's List.

Director Reitman has often been accused of being slightly conservative, and you could argue that in this movie he quietly constructs a fantasy about the repair and restoration of the traditional nuclear family.

Emphasis on fantasy. Frank's presence in the movie is so strange, so hard to believe, that I began to suspect a "Sixth Sense"-type reveal - that Frank was the spectral projection of a mentally-ill woman, that the son was playing along.

But, no, he's real. The cops (a James Van Der Beek sighting), drive by every 10 minutes looking for him. So, why is he in the yard, playing ball with the neighborhood kids?

The movie eventually finds some way to ground itself in something approaching reality.

Still, I left the theater thinking wistfully of the day when escaped convicts might turn up in my neighborhood. Someone needs to knock the icicles off the downspouts.

Blog: philly.com/KeepItReel

Online: ph.ly/Movies

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