I am certainly not too cynical a critic to ignore or dismiss the power of schmaltzy entertainment. Schmaltz is responsible for the Lifetime Network, The Hallmark Channel, and the writing career of Nicholas Sparks, so it is not to be trifled with.
That’s why I’m not going to go after the movie “Labor Day” for being too schmaltzy, which it is. In fact, it reaches a Precious-Moments-figurine-resting-on-a-tear-soaked-pillow-in-a-burned-down-orphanage level of schmaltzy.
But my beef lies in the movie’s patent ridiculousness — even by the standards of this generally outrageous genre — coupled with an effort that is way below the talent level of those in front of and behind the camera.
The movie is set specifically in a small New Hampshire town in 1987 and focuses on Adele (Kate Winslet), a depressed single mother, who lives with her tween-aged son, Henry (Gattlin Griffith).
Their lives are upended when they give a ride to Frank (Josh Brolin), a down-on-his-luck man who turns out to be an escaped convict. Frank kinda-sorta kidnaps Adele and Henry, but they quickly become willing accomplices as they hide him in their home over Labor Day weekend.
This trio bonds quickly and creepily (a three-way pie-making scene is especially cringe-worthy) and the movie’s tension comes from a fear of discovery from the oppressively suspicious citizenry. Everyone from the bank teller to Henry’s eye-shadowed summer crush grill mother and son like they are Columbo about to crack a case.
Over the course of the weekend, back stories are fleshed out through flashbacks and it becomes increasingly unclear as to whose movie this is. Even though the story is narrated by an adult Henry (the voice of Tobey Maguire), the movie’s point of view is shifted to Adele and Frank as well.
You’re never sure if you’re supposed to be watching “Stand By Me,” “The Bridges of Madison County” or “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a little disorienting.
Most surprising is that this sloppy schmaltz-fest was delivered by Jason Reitman, a somewhat accomplished writer and director known for above-average efforts like “Juno” and “Up in the Air.”
Reitman usually has a sharp focus and a clear, almost satirical voice. Maybe that’s why his wandering around in a sun-dappled New England melodrama feels so disjointed and unnatural.
The cast is solid, although they usually find themselves in much more interesting places. Griffith holds his own here, which is really all you can ask of a young actor in a situation like this.
Brolin is never asked to do anything other than be Josh Brolin, which means warmth and charm shine through the cracks in his gruff and steely expressions.
Winslet seems the most untethered here as she is an unquestionably great actress who just can’t seem to get a handle on how crazy her character is supposed to be. She’s delivering a performance that is too nuanced and layered for a movie like this and because of that Adele comes off looking like a nut job.
Perhaps the biggest problem here is that “Labor Day” has delusions of grandeur and never fully embraces its schmaltzy identity, as what could have been the next “The Notebook” instead becomes another forgettable carcass tossed on Hollywood’s January scrap heap.
“Labor Day” is rated PG-13 for thematic material, brief violence, and sexuality.