I must've gotten something stuck in my eye at the end of "Labor Day."
Which was a pretty amazing turnabout, considering that about an hour earlier, I thought I was going to cry over what screenwriter/director Jason Reitman was trying to force down our throats with his adaptation of Oakland author Joyce Maynard's novel of the same name.
Get a load of this premise:
A convicted murderer (Josh Brolin) escapes from prison and, in what is surely the smoothest public kidnapping in cinematic history, forces a an emotionally distraught woman (Kate Winslet) and her about-to-explode-into-puberty son (Gattlin Griffith) to take him home and tend to his wounds. He turns out to be the father the boy wants and the emotional savior the mother needs -- and a whole lot more: handyman, expert chef, car mechanic and baseball coach, all wrapped into one ruggedly handsome package with whom his victims start bonding mere hours after being snatched.
Oh, and he's great with kids in wheelchairs -- and makes pies so sexy the food in the refrigerator scene in "9 ½ Weeks" would be embarrassed to be in the same kitchen.
Poor Brolin. Women everywhere will now beg him to kidnap them.
Like Maynard's novel, "Labor Day" is set in mid-1980s New Hampshire (where she grew up). The main protagonist is 13-year-old Henry Wheeler, whose main concerns in life are caring for his reclusive mother, Adele (played with exceptional weariness and fragility by Winslet), and the tingly sensations he's suddenly getting when looking at girls. When the pair venture out shopping for school clothes, they're confronted by escaped and wounded prisoner Frank Chambers, who calmly but firmly forces his way into their home while the small town around them buzzes with the manhunt.
Chambers initially wants to stay just until nightfall, but then he starts cooking, which becomes a near-embarrasing metaphor for love or sex, depending on whose fingers are in the mixing bowl at any given time.
So how does a film that likely would have Nicholas Sparks wincing during its first half-hour turn out to be such a guilty pleasure?
Reitman is unapologetic in his goal of making you desperately want these poor people to come together in a world that, despite its outward beauty (the cinematography makes you feel the sweaty weather coming off the screen), is full of unimaginable ugliness. The film just won't give up. Like a cheetah spotting a gazelle, it hunts you and chases your emotions until you finally succumb. Despite being one of the most unbelievable plots in love story history, it's also one of the most emotionally magnetic. That's why we go to the movies -- to see things that don't happen in real life, and once in a while you have to give in.
It doesn't hurt that the acting is first-rate, the chemistry between Winslet and Brolin is enviable, and there's just enough foreshadowing to pique one's interest as to how it will all play out and why these characters have come to need each other so badly and so quickly. "Labor Day" alternates between dream and nightmare realities that make it hard to predict what's coming next and eventually, harder still not to care.
To his credit, Griffith doesn't overact in the role of middle-schooler Henry, whose life is so inside-out it's difficult for him to be anything but stone-cold confused (his "girlfriend," the wise, big-city transplant Eleanor, played by Brighid Fleming, swipes every scene she's in). But as much as the story is told from Henry's point of view (narrated by Tobey Maguire, who appears late in the film), "Labor Day" is really about whether two badly wounded people can recover from devastating loss and find a reason to live.
Whether we get the ending we expect -- or want -- depends on whether we're hopeless romantics or pay specific attention to all the "Bonnie & Clyde" talk between Henry and Eleanor. Either way, Reitman -- who has given us "Juno" and "Up in the Air" -- has made a film that is unapologetic in its aim to rip your heart from your chest. And "Labor Day" does just that. Resistance is futile.
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material, brief violence and sexuality)
Cast: Josh Brolin, Kate Winslet,
Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire, Brighid Fleming
Director: Jason Reitman
1 hour, 51 minutes