Movie fans know Joyce Maynard through the film version of her novel “To Die For,” though one suspects Buck Henry’s screenplay influences our estimation of the story. Maynard has also been in the news because of her decision to sell letters written to her by the reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye.” She lived with him for a year in the early 1970s.
Buck Henry and J.D. Salinger. Maynard has been around enough to know how to write a romance novel with literary features. Certainly director Jason Reitman’s screenplay version of “Labor Day,” the most recent of Maynard’s books to make it to the big screen, is precisely that: a romance novel that on the side sets up some parallel experiences for its characters.
So “Labor Day” (a title claiming more significance than it has) is a Valentine’s Day offering. With a few trimmings.
Consequently it is nice that the movie is so very sensual. The story takes place in the 1980s (“D.A.R.Y.L.” is showing at the small New England town’s movie theater), but time doesn’t really figure. The fundamental things—romantic, sexual, sensory—apply as time goes by.
We get the story from the point of view of Henry, who was at the time getting ready to enroll in the seventh grade. He will have his first romance during the main action, as a side show, and will get his first kiss. And then at the end of the movie he will appear as a grown-up played by Toby Maguire. That actor has also provided the voice-over narration for the film.
Henry’s parents have divorced—we don’t at first know why. He lives with his mother (Kate Winslet, looking almost over-ripe), a lover of ballroom dancing, who has become introverted and has developed a hand tremor. Henry’s dweeby father, who later confesses his marital cowardice, lives nearby with his new family.
What happens is that craggy Frank (Josh Brolin) is taken from prison to the local hospital from which he escapes. There is a manhunt. Frank attaches himself to Ma and young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) when the three are at a discount store. Brolin is perfectly cast here. He can seem competent and yet he still projects no warmth, so we never really trust him.
Somehow he manages to get himself into Ma’s house. Then he goes on to win her sympathy, mostly by doing an array of chores—foundation tarring, tire rotating, and pie making in a scene that, though it includes young Henry, is essentially an improvement on the pot-throwing business in the movie “Ghost”—sensual, suggestive, and slightly mysterious.
All of this is interrupted by flashbacks. Some of the early ones may be of Ma’s early romance. The later ones are about Frank’s. These go on, eventually sort-of explaining how he came to be convicted of murder. The manner of the telling here is echoed in the explanation of Ma’s mental state—she had several miscarriages and a still-birth.
So the two prisoners of personal tragedy begin to romance each other. And Henry begins to romance the new girl in town. And the facts of life are explained to him I think three separate times.
But the outside world won’t let Ma and Frank alone. They decide to fly. Will they get away? Will that random cop played by James Van Der Beek figure out what’s going on? How is the story going to resolve its problems?
They do get resolved, more or less. No moviegoer will be surprised by the resolution any more than they will by the events leading to it. Things are surprisingly straightforward here. One has time to think while “Labor Day” is running. I thought about what I’d learned, over the year of Fifty Shades of Gray, about the popular attractions of female submissiveness. This is an impulse that is played with in this film.
But I don’t know the novel on which it is based. Perhaps the submission business was added by Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman who gave us who gave us “Meatballs,” “Stripes,” and “Ghostbusters.” Given that bloodline, though, I’m betting the woman who at 18 left college to move in with 53-year-old Salinger is the more likely source.