Gattlin Griffith, Josh Brolin, and Kate Winslet in Labor DayLABOR DAY

Once upon a time, in the world of writer/director Jason Reitman, there was a magical kingdom called Labor Day.

In this enchanted land, one originally created by the novelist Joyce Maynard, there was a 13-year-old boy named Henry, who was played, with an almost superhuman lack of facial expression, by a young man named Gattlin Griffith. It was Labor Day weekend in 1987, and Henry lived in a sleepy New Hampshire town with his mother Adele, whose husband divorced her even though she was played by Kate Winslet. Adele was very sad and very agoraphobic, but Henry tried to make up for his dad's absence by being really solicitous toward his mom, even giving her a "husband for a day" coupon book for such gifts as a complimentary back rub and bubble bath. (Everyone watching this sheltered twosome silently agreed not to find their relationship icky, even when mom and son laid in a hammock together and Adele talked about "desire and the hunger for human touch.")

One day, while at the market, Henry met a man named Frank, who was bleeding from the gut and had a Satan goatee and was played by Josh Brolin. Frank asked for a ride from Henry and Adele, who were leery at first, but reconsidered after Frank clutched Henry by the neck and said in a menacing tone, "This needs to happen." Frank, you see, was a convicted murderer recently escaped from custody, and so without making a scene, Adele agreed to his demand, driving her son and the threatening man home with them both in the back, a seating arrangement that local authorities wouldn't find suspicious at all.

Once home, and despite his avowal that he'd "never intentionally hurt anyone" in his life, Frank wasted no time tying Adele to a chair "for appearance's sake." But Frank proved to be a very kind and decent kidnapper. He gently bound the woman's hands and feet, tenderly caressing her left heel in the process, and then made his hosts a scrumptious-looking chili dinner that he spoon-fed to Adele, being sure to blow first on each luscious morsel. (Witnesses, however, did find it rather cruel that Frank would make Adele eat chili and not provide a beverage.) Yet the next day, with Adele no longer tied up, Frank proved to be even nicer. While squad cars routinely scanned the neighborhood looking for the escaped convict, Frank changed the oil on Adele's car, washed and waxed the floors, and cooked homemade biscuits using a recipe that, judging by Adele's expression while consuming them, he must have got from Heaven above. And then a neighbor stopped by with a large basket of peaches.

Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, and Gattlin Griffith in Labor DayAt first, this seemed a welcome gesture, mostly because the neighbor was played by J.K. Simmons. But after this man gave Henry the basket and left, not seeing or hearing Frank and Adele standing four feet away, Adele instructed Henry to throw the peaches out, as most of them would rot. Frank, however, knew better, and declared, "I have a better idea." And then they started making a pie. Having apparently decided that Ghost's pottery-wheel scene would make for a fun family activity, Frank, Adele, and Henry collectively submerged their hands in a big mixing bowl of cut peaches and sugar and syrup, their entwined hands massaging the sticky fruit-stuff until Frank announced, "I want to talk about crust." He did. For a very long time. Then the pie heaved and bubbled in the oven. For a very long time. And after it was ready, and the contented threesome ate in the living room, Adele leaned her head on Frank's shoulder, which Henry noticed, just as he later noticed the sounds of quiet lovemaking coming from his mother's bedroom. (Every time Adele's son laid in bed thinking of arousing imagery, Reitman was careful to show Henry's hands resting comfortably on his chest, so we'd know he was a nice boy.)

The next day, while a local policeman played by James Van Der Beek stapled "Wanted" posters to trees, Adele taught Frank how to rumba, and Frank oiled a squeaky door and did the laundry and cleaned out the gutters. He even taught a mentally challenged kid in a wheelchair how to play baseball. Everyone was very happy, and the makeshift family planned a getaway to Canada. But because Adele and Henry couldn't talk to a single person in town without stammering and shaking and raising other red flags suggesting "We're harboring a fugitive!", things quickly got complicated. And then they got silly. And then, by the time Frank sensitively murmured, "I came to save you, Adele," they got downright laughable.

It was generally agreed that Reitman handled the flashbacks to Frank's past with some elegance. And viewers were generally grateful for the presences of Clark Gregg and Brighid Fleming, the latter of whom looked just like a teenage version of Charlize Theron in Reitman's Young Adult, and who, at one point, was shown reading a book titled The Young Adult's Guide to Freedom. (Viewers were also grateful for the movie's two or three jokes.) But after 110 minutes, most everyone was just grateful for Labor Day to be over with, and hoped that when it came to atrociously unconvincing romantic pap, the beginning of the usually witty Reitman's love affair with soap-opera schmaltz would also be ... the end.

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