The premise for Labor Day sounds very ill conceived: it's about one magical holiday weekend where a depressed mother and her soon-to-hit puberty son have their lives turned upside down by an escaped convict who takes them hostage in their own home and then teaches them how to bake. On paper those two extremes don't sound like they would work together at all. After all, there's a reason why movies like the Purge make so much money - it's because people's homes are so primally important to them that the idea of someone barging in is pure horror, and that's not exactly a good backdrop for a tender romance.
When you actually watch the film, however, you get that the same way that Twilight could take the violent nature of a vampire and tame it into something people would find romantic this film could take a criminal and make him appealing. Yes, it's a nightmare to have someone force himself into your home, but at the same time having a random angel swoop down and save you from yourself without asking anything from you in return is also a fantasy. The convict in this movie is basically a genie from a bottle or a lottery ticket: he changes the oil in their car without being asked to (even though he's got a festering chest wound from a recent appendectomy); he teaches her son to play baseball (that being the most photogenic game for a father to play with a son); and he always finds the time to say the right things about how beautiful and perfect the mom is (even though he has to know that he should really start moving on if he doesn't want to get caught.) This mother and son team didn't ask for any of this, but they needed help, and voila, here's a guy who knows how to manage their previously unmanageable lives. Personally, I could do without the hostage part, but other parts of that sound pretty good.
The convict character in this movie is a perfect distillation of all the conflicting traits that we want from a perfect man. He's guilty of a crime, so he's enough of a bad boy to check that fantasy off the list, but his crime was an accident caused in a moment of passion, so he's also innocent at heart. He's so kind that he treats the handicapped neighbor kid with more tenderness than the kid's own mom does, but he's also assertive enough that you can imagine him teaching any kid he raises how to stand up for themselves. He can do all the dirty mechanical things that a "real man" can do like fix a squeaky stair, but he isn't afraid of doing "feminine" things like making dinner. Even though he's just been changing a tire his hands are so clean that you don't second guess it when he puts them directly in the peaches he's about to turn into a pie.
So, yes, watching this movie you can see how this could work, because it's tapping into stereotypes that have real power to them, and with the right touch this ridiculously unrealistic plot could be an appealing reverie. But in practice the film can't overcome the wide gulf between an idealized man we might fantasize about and the imperfect men that really exist. All of the unexamined contradictions that are built into these character's DNA leave them feeling like partially realized sketches trying to enact an emotionally wonky plot.
But there's more to it than that: these characters feel like partially realized sketches from a bygone time. After all, baseball has been eclipsed in American culture by football, basketball and now even soccer, and while home pie baking has a novelty to it who doesn't just buy their baked goods from a store? It doesn't help that the world of the film has a look that's also far too idealized - with this much sun dappled suburban iconography at every turn it feels less like the story of someone's life as it does an extended spread in Better Homes and Gardens. The film's Eisenhower-era ideals might have worked a few generations ago when those fantasies were America's default fantasies, but now they just look cheesy. Come one guys, didn't you get the memo that tough but tender men who fix cars and raises sons in the suburbs are out and bloodthirsty vampires that don't kill and who birth demon babies in million dollar houses are in?
Winner: The Cat