Does pie-making by people in the movies make other people want to eat more pie?
"People said yes," said Linda Hoskins, executive director of the American Pie Council, which recently did a survey asking that very question. Given the role of pie in "Labor Day," we'd like a few follow-ups.
Opening Friday, director Jason Reitman's fifth film -- after "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno," "Up in the Air" and "Young Adult" -- is a dramatic departure for the 36-year-old writer-director. The story of Adele, a depressed, agoraphobic young mother and her sensitive 13-year-old son, it stars Kate Winslet, Gattlin Griffith and Josh Brolin as Frank, the escaped convict who comes to dinner.
Correction: Who makes the dinner. Which he then spoon-feeds Adele. But only after having bound her, sensually and with soft ropes, to a kitchen chair. Chili is the entree. But it is merely the appetizer to Adele's erotic reawakening.
It isn't just Frank's good looks and manliness that fix Adele's furnace. He literally fixes her furnace. And her car. And re-mortars the fieldstone in her house's foundation. And waxes her floors. He bakes breakfast muffins that leave her wide-eyed. He teaches her son to throw a baseball.
And then comes the pie. "I want to talk about crust," Frank says -- and does, in the process producing a rustic masterpiece of peaches, butter, flour and shortening, always keeping his (ingredients) cool.
Frank is the perfect man, especially if you overlook the minor detail of a murder conviction -- something Adele is willing to do, especially in light of her rising temperature.
A JOYCE MAYNARD NOVEL
"Could any of this happen?" asked a laughing Joyce Maynard, whose novel is the basis of Reitman's screenplay and movie. "Part of why we go to movies is to imagine things that might possibly happen, and go on a journey. And the first person I wanted to take on that journey was me."
The film got mixed reactions when it premiered at Telluride in September. Coincidentally or not, Paramount moved the film's release out of an unusually crowded Christmas and into a less-congested January (a fate than also befell such films as "The Monuments Men" and "Lone Survivor"). And led to unavoidable problems with publicity.
"I'm on the 'Kate Winslet Is Not Available Tour,'" Maynard quipped.
But she seems genuinely pleased by one of her novels being brought to the screen, something that happened once before -- with "To Die For," the dark, edgy comedy directed by Gus Van Sant that featured what Maynard called "one of the best Nicole Kidman performances ever." Many would agree.
But "Labor Day" is a different kind of animal, especially for Reitman. He's a director who has shown a flair for the delicately sardonic. "Up in the Air" deftly balanced George Clooney's comedic gifts with his talents for pathos. "Young Adult" seesawed between the tragic and blithe.
In "Labor Day," though, he plays it straight -- the cooking scenes, just for instance, are matter-of-fact, to the point of being instructional; none of Frank's man-around-the-house antics possess a shred of irony. If Maynard's book can be considered a bible of chick lit, Reitman is definitely a defender of the faith.
GROWN MEN CRYING
And yet "there's a big difference between sentiment and sentimentality," Maynard argues. "These are characters who have struggled; no one can wave a magic wand and make that go away. There's no prince on a white horse coming to save Adele. But Jason has put away the cynicism with this one, which people have had a hard time with."
Not all of them, of course. "There were a few grown men crying at Telluride," she said. "Michael Moore was coming out of the men's room, and he said, 'You should see it in there.' But it's not something to be ashamed of."
The real crime, all can agree, is bad pie-making. Maynard is an enthusiast, and was brought onto the set ("directors usually hate having writers around") to teach Brolin how to bake. Although she took issue with this writer's use of a food processor to mix the ingredient for pie crust, agreement was reached on the major questions: Butter and Crisco, salt, not too much sugar. Maynard encourages the use of minute tapioca as a thickener. No cornstarch in the filling, she insists.
And as regards lard -- which some bakers consider an essential ingredient -- the Pie Council's Hoskins said it's rather passé. "It's hard to say what's right or wrong," she said. "None of our chefs ever use lard." More important, she said is the preservation of tradition, and pie making, which is something "Labor Day" does, even when its attention wanders out of the kitchen and into the bedroom.
"I'm of the opinion that it's about building relationships," she said of pie baking. "Whether it's friends and neighbors, or parents and children. Or romantic. We like to see that, too."
Breakout escaped convict flicks
While the escaped convict is a fixture of American movies, he's not generally the object of affection, a la "Labor Day." Sometimes he hasn't even escaped: In both versions of "Cape Fear," for instance (1962 with Robert Mitchum, 1991 with Robert De Niro), the vicious Max Cady has actually done his time and is looking for revenge. In "High Sierra," one of the great Humphrey Bogart movies, Roy Earle also has been released, though he immediately gets back in the bank-robbery game. The fugitive, however, is shackled with a particular brand of conflict/drama, which has made standouts of the following films:
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) Fact-based story stars Paul Muni as an innocent man, fleeing the purgatorial Georgia prison system, who delivers one of the more haunting last lines in the history of American cinema.
STAGECOACH (1939) The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) has escaped from prison when he's picked up by the motley group of travelers in John Ford's landmark western.
THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955) William Wyler directed this suspense thriller based on a novel and play by Joseph Hayes, in which three cons on the lam take a family of four hostage while waiting for the money that will aid their escape. Bogart leads the trio, and Fredric March is the courageous but outnumbered homeowner.
A PERFECT WORLD (1993) One of Clint Eastwood's more outstanding directorial efforts, this thriller also contains Kevin Costner's best performance ever. He plays Butch Haynes, an inmate who, having fled the penitentiary, picks up an 8-year-old hostage (T.J. Lowther) and then tries to outrun Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Eastwood).
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000) The hapless trio (George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) are escapees from a Mississippi chain gang in the Coen brothers' comedy.