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updated: 1/30/2014 2:26 PM

Reitman's 'Labor Day' a confusing, cooked-up affair

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  • Henry (Gattlin Griffith), left, Frank (Josh Brolin) and Adele (Kate Winslet) work the dough for a perfect pie crust in "Labor Day," a middle-aged extension of an adolescent girl's bad-boy fantasy.

    Henry (Gattlin Griffith), left, Frank (Josh Brolin) and Adele (Kate Winslet) work the dough for a perfect pie crust in "Labor Day," a middle-aged extension of an adolescent girl's bad-boy fantasy.


Jason Reitman's adult romance "Labor Day" presents a moving but muddled middle-aged variation on the classic adolescent girl's romantic bad-boy fantasy.

Josh Brolin, emanating violent threat beneath gentlemanly manners, plays Frank, a prison escapee who quietly forces a New Hampshire woman and her teen son to harbor him in their house over the Labor Day weekend in 1987.

He ties up Adele (the alluring Kate Winslet, trying to appear homely in a house dress and failing miserably) so she can tell the cops he restrained her, then she can't be accused of abetting a fugitive.

What a considerate man for someone serving an 18-year prison term for murder.

Frank proves himself to be quite a catch for a killer.

He teaches Adele's rudderless seventh-grade son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) how to properly throw a baseball, how to bat, how to change the oil and tires on the car, and how to be a nice guy to his mom.

Then, Frank turns out to be quite a handyman. He fixes the steps, regrouts the retaining wall, changes the light bulbs and performs other household chores. (In case viewers might be too dim to catch all this, Henry's voice-over narration announces Frank's accomplishments as he performs them.)

But wait! Frank is also an accomplished culinary student. His homemade chili is to die for (or to be tied-up-for, as Adele is when Frank spoon-feeds her his savory creation).

Presented with a surplus of ripe peaches from a neighbor (J.K. Simmons), Frank enlists Adele's aid in creating the perfect pie crust, erotically fondling her hands as he guides them while kneading the raw and gooey dough. (Could this be an homage to the potter's wheel scene from "Ghost"?)

What emotionally starved, sexually sidelined single mom wouldn't love this guy? And Adele does by the close of the weekend.

Reitman, the talented filmmaker who excels at comic dramas built around relationships (he gave us "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult"), never rushes his characters in "Labor Day." He lets the budding romance between Frank and Adele develop organically, emotionally and realistically.

Nonetheless, "Labor Day," adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel, gets hamstrung by having the wrong character acting as our voice-over guide into this world.

Winslet's Adele is a far more intriguing character to explore, a passionate and sensual woman once married to a superficial husband (Clark Gregg) who dumps her after Adele falls into a depression following a series of terrible miscarriages.

"I just wanted a normal life," he explains to his son.

Filtered through young Henry's sensibilities, "Labor Day" becomes a much simpler story about a boy's concern that his mom will find a new man and abandon her son for a fresh start.

Reitman is further hampered by a collage of confusing, drawn-out flashbacks from Frank's tragic past and some superfluous flirtatious fantasies from Henry's adolescent imagination.

These serve to eventually fill in a lot of blanks designed to lure us through the story, but the ride to that point lasts longer than the Labor Day weekend.

Reitman's movie benefits from Rolfe Kent's elemental score, conjuring up a menacing mood with two repetitive string notes, and superlative performances by both Winslet -- who has the affection-deprived woman down to an art by now -- and Brolin, whose cautious restraint almost makes his fantasy bad-boy fugitive totally realistic.

In fact, the way "Labor Day" presents its whirlwind captor/captive romance, "Stockholm syndrome" might be renamed "Josh Brolin Syndrome" any day now.

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