Viewing the first fifteen or so minutes of Jason (Up in the Air) Reitman’s latest offering unencumbered with any foreknowledge of its genre, you might just imagine you were encountering a gripping thriller in the making a la Panic Room.
First there’s the narration taken directly from Joyce Maynard’s novel upon which the film is based. The adult Henry (Tobey Maguire), looking back at the three days that transformed his world, the Labor Day weekend of 1987, notes:
“It was just the two of us . . . after my father left.”
His mom, Adele (Kate Winslet), approaching 40, has become a recluse since her divorce, seldom leaving her home anymore. She’s enveloped herself in unceasing sadness that began with several contiguous personal losses. Being abandoned by her spouse was the final straw. But as Henry notes, I don’t think losing my father broke my mother’s heart; rather losing love itself."
Consequently, the 13-year-old Henry (Gattlin Griffith) has taken on the role of his mom’s protector, confidant, banker, and counselor. He’d rather be chasing girls though, and in case he ever catches one, he’ll be ready, having routinely peeked into women’s magazines such as Cosmo for sex and seduction tips.
Henry has few regrets, though, even with his normal adolescence infringed upon by being forced to be a parent to his parent. The boy realizes Adele’s his real family, his only family. As for Dad, whom Henry dines with every Saturday, and who has asked his son to move in with his new wife and her children, Henry knows where he fits. Knows where he’s needed. Not there.
So for this emotionally bedraggled duo, there are their daily indoor routines, with the only outings for the agoraphobic Adele being the now and then anxiety-filled drives to the local Pricemart. And, sadly for her, that time has come again because the boy’s outgrown his slacks and school’s starting. So off mom and son go, but on this specific trek, when Henry leaves his Mom a few aisles behind so he can gaze through the women’s mags, he’s suddenly confronted by the bleeding, brutally arresting Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), an escaped convict “asking” for help. "Demanding" would be more appropriate. Within minutes, Frank forces Adele to drive him to her home by insinuating he might just kill Henry if she hesitates.
But before you can really start chewing away at your nails, the hostage drama turns into The Bridges of Madison County. This gangster can clean, repair anything, bake peach pies, and eventually proves he’s good in the sack.
This is a grand love story beautifully enacted by the entire cast with Winslet at her most vulnerable and Brolin at his most charmingly macho. As for teener Griffith, he holds his own, even surviving a minor subplot with a gal pal that is slightly awkward, but not despairingly so.
In the end, if you want a film that convinces you we all have second chances at happiness and that love can survive the most outrageous challenges, and that someday a sultry stranger will walk into your kitchen and cause you to re-experience an erotic bliss you thought you were no longer capable of achieving after binding you to a chair, look no further. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Theatre into Film" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writinggroup FlashPoint.