'Men, Women & Children'
Jason Reitman is a tough director to pin down. He clearly wants to be taken seriously and often attempts to dive into dark subject matter. Yet, he’s also a crowd-pleaser who tugs on emotions freely and wants a populist response (and corresponding box office). That contradiction sometimes leads to muddled movies from the director, and ‘Men, Women & Children’ might be his most muddled to date.
The film is a harshly comedic look at the way the world has become disconnected in the digital age. It presents images of crowds with everyone on their phones rather than communicating with anyone around them, and the kaleidoscope of stories in the plot offers more of the same.
Adam Sandler plays a sad, porn-obsessed man who is so desperate to fulfill his needs that he explores the world of online escorts, while his wife Rosemarie DeWitt dabbles on AshleyMadison.com. Their son has been so numbed by porn since age 10 that he has a hard time connecting with real girls.
Then there’s Jennifer Garner as such an overprotective mother that she reads absolutely every text, email and keystroke that her daughter makes online. Judy Greer plays a failed actress trying to get her daughter a leg up in showbiz with a vaguely adult website. On top of all that are other plots involving suicide, miscarriages, eating disorders, divorce, depression, violence and nihilistic philosophy. You know, all of the classic comedy elements.
Reitman is clearly going after the tone of a film like Todd Solondz’s ‘Happiness’, which presents suburban life as a secret chamber for all of society’s horrors. His comedy is caustic, able to slip into straight drama at any second. The movie wants to shock and move viewers in addition to making them laugh. It also attempts to capture the pain of the world in the digital age.
All of this is supposed to happen in two hours, and it’s safe to say that the movie sags under the weight of ambition. About 50% of it works and even works well, while the other 50% is either overcooked with intent or underserved by the running time. The movie needs to be far more focused to make its intended impact. (I haven’t even mentioned the CGI wrap-around involving a satellite at the edge of the galaxy.)
Yet the film is also compelling in its wildly overreaching ways. There’s some searing stuff here, suggesting a level of satire and insight that Reitman never seemed capable of before, as well as mountains of irritatingly maudlin material holding it together. The performances are all terrific, even if some characters are underused. Overall, it’s a bit of a mess with moments of brilliance. Maybe the script was a draft away from coming together, or maybe it was overwritten a draft or two too far. Either way, ‘Men, Women & Children is far from the film that Reitman was aiming for. Fortunately, that’s not the same thing as being horrible.