'Men, Women & Children'
Jason Reitman can be faulted for many things as a filmmaker, but ambition isn’t one of them. He wants to make grand, sweeping social statements wrapped in comedy that cause viewers to leap out of their seats and proclaim him a genius. Unfortunately, when you openly aim for greatness it’s harder to get there, and Reitman’s movies typically fall short. ‘Men, Women & Children’ is no exception, offering half of a good movie and a lot of waste surrounding it.
The subject of ‘Men, Women & Children’ is essentially how we’re all so totally disconnected in this digital age, man. It’s like we all look at screens instead of each other, right? Well, the theme is explored a little more eloquently than that, at least initially. Reitman sprawls out an ensemble of people whose lives are warped and twisted by internet culture and the sexual exploits therein.
There’s a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemary DeWitt) who can’t have sex anymore, so he turns to online escorts and she turns to online affair services. There’s their teenage son (Travis Tope) who is addicted to only the hardest of online pornography, making it difficult for him to engage in actual human sex with the school sexpot (Olivia Crocicchia). That girl’s mother (Judy Greer) takes pervy pictures of her daughter to sell online to fund the teen’s acting lessons.
Meanwhile, Greer starts seeing Dean Norris, whose wife recently left him and posts about her new love life on Facebook constantly. That obviously makes things difficult for their son (Ansel Elgort), who copes by diving into an endless online multiplayer game called ‘Guild Wars’, and even quits football to focus on his gaming. He does start seeing a girl (Kaitlyn Dever), though, which proves tricky since her mother (Jennifer Garner) monitors her daughter’s cell phone and even keeps track of every keystroke she makes on her computer in an insane act of digital over-parenting. Plus, there’s another teen girl (Elena Kampouris) who loses too much weight for a boy and ends up pregnant because there just wasn’t enough sadness and button-pushing in the movie already.
So, that’s a whole lot of melodrama designed to scream at the audience in the loudest possible terms about the dangers of digital life. (And I haven’t even gotten into the pathetically pretentious wrap-around segment involving Voyager 1, because Reitman never should have touched it either.) As is the Jason Reitman way, none of the characters in the film ever really feel like people, nor do we particularly care for them. Nope, there’s far too much cynical detachment on display here for anything to feel relatable. Reitman’s primary mode as a filmmaker is to create caricatures to be gawked at for comedy and criticized for drama. ‘Men, Women & Children’ is like watching five of his movies edited together with a unifying theme of the evils of the digital landscape.
Sometimes the subplots strive so hard to make a point that viewers will have to duck in their seats to dodge the hammer Reitman is swinging – including the Sandler/DeWitt plot, which suggests adultery exists only in the lives of bored suburbanites because of online accessibility. Sometimes the subplots just peter out with no real moral or resolution to justify them bolstering the running time. (That’s particularly frustrating with Trope’s story, which stops the moment it gets interesting and is never picked up again.) The way the various stories intertwine and bump into each other feels more contrived than coincidental. It’s just a big mess of a movie in so many ways.
And yet as usual with Reitman, ‘Men, Women & Children’ is not easy to dismiss purely for its failings. While the script might be overly didactic, the themes are prescient. The subject is worthy of a tragicomedy treatment like this and occasionally Reitman gets there. Early images of characters wandering around disconnected from each other with their faces in their phones and secret conversations CGIed above their heads are quite striking. Most of the premises are intriguing, and while many eventually devolve into Paul Haggis levels of obnoxious moralizing stupidity, a few remain intriguing all the way through. Specifically, the Jennifer Garner plot, while cartoonish, never takes the easy way out. Ditto the mother/daughter exploitation cautionary tale staring Greer.
There’s enough good material here to suggest that the script was perhaps a draft or two from working as a whole. Likewise, whatever failings that Reitman has a director, his ability to collaborate with actors isn’t one of them. Everyone on screen does worthy work that elevates their roles out of caricature at least once, with particularly strong performances coming from Sandler, DeWitt, Norris and Greer. About half of ‘Men, Women & Children’ works, while the other half fails so spectacularly that it almost makes the movie more frustrating than if it had been a full-on catastrophe. In the functioning scenes and sequences, you can see what Reitman was aiming for and it was certainly interesting. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons he never quite hit his target, and that’s a real shame. Maybe next time.