Thirteen-year-old Henry watches, fascinated, as a strange man ties up his mother in "Labor Day," Jason Reitman's dramatic thriller about love, sex and danger. The man is Frank Chambers, an escaped convict played by a beefy Josh Brolin, and the mother is Adele Wheeler, played by Kate Winslet in a breezy summer dress. As Frank's ropes caress Adele's delicate wrists and plump calves, all filmed in loving close-up, young Henry (Gattlin Griffith) can feel the erotic tension in the air.
Based on Joyce Maynard's 2009 novel, "Labor Day" is the story of a woman who falls in love with her captor. Like all bondage narratives -- whether hidden in a comedy like "It Happened One Night" or laid out plainly in a novel like "Fifty Shades of Grey" -- it feels both sexy and slightly sexist. Adele, a withdrawn and depressed single mother, is about as submissive as they come, while Frank dominates her with not only rope but aggressive househusbandry. Once inside Adele's home, Frank begins fixing old doors, working on the car, cooking, mopping. It's S&M, Norman Rockwell style.
Much of "Labor Day" feels comically heavy-handed, as when Frank and Adele assume the "Ghost" position to mash up some squishy peach-pie filling, but the actors maintain their dignity. Brolin's menace softens but never quite fades, while Winslet convincingly shows us a woman rediscovering her body and herself. Clark Gregg, as Henry's Sundays-only father, adds a touching note of real-world normalcy.
"Labor Day" marks a departure for writer-director Reitman, whose sharp-edged comedy-dramas have ranged from the snarky "Juno" to the brutal "Young Adult." This movie's focus, however, seems fuzzy. The romance develops so suddenly (note the three-day weekend of the title) that we never quite believe it, and several murky flashbacks suggest a twist that never satisfactorily arrives. The wistful narration from a now-grown Henry (Tobey Maguire, in an odd cameo) feels borrowed from another film in an unrelated genre.
With no deeper theme to reveal, "Labor Day" seems unaware of its troubling, Stockholm Syndrome subtext. It's also clearly oblivious to its camp potential. When Frank refires Adele's boiler, you'll have to supply your own jokes.
PLOT A reclusive woman and her young son reluctantly give shelter to an escaped convict.
RATING PG-13 (sexuality, adult themes)
CAST Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith
BOTTOM LINE This overeroticized drama gets so hot and bothered that it borders on camp. Intriguing and well-acted, but often inadvertently funny.
HOLIDAY FLICKS WORTH CELEBRATING
With a title like "Labor Day," the new Kate Winslet drama probably should have opened in September. At least producers of these four box-office hits, also named for a holiday, had the smarts to open their films at the appropriate time of year.
HALLOWEEN (1978) -- The first -- and best -- of the slasher series opened six days before Halloween. This horror treat also pulled a neat trick: Though made for only $325,000, to date it's had a domestic gross of $47 million.
GROUNDHOG DAY (1993) -- This Bill Murray charmer actually opened 10 days after Punxsutawney Phil's big day, but close enough. And who knew groundhogs could be so difficult to work with -- Murray was bitten twice by his furry co-star.
INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996) -- This Will Smith vs. aliens blockbuster opened fittingly on July 3, even though 20th Century Fox originally considered releasing it for Memorial Day and calling it "Doomsday" to avoid the July Fourth competition.
VALENTINE'S DAY (2010) -- Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Bradley Cooper and a host of other names headlined this all-star rom-com that opened on Feb. 12. And with a Valentine's Day weekend gross of $56.2 million, it sure won moviegoers' hearts.
-- Daniel Bubbeo