Jason Reitman’s ability to attract large, talented ensembles has become perhaps the biggest signature of his now well-established career, but it would be wrong to say that he hasn’t been challenging himself. Even if you were one of the many who found last year’s Labor Day to be overcooked and overly saccharine, it was a step away from the cynicism and glibness that had worked for him so well in three features previous. If Labor Day was Reitman swinging too hard in the opposite direction in the name of earnestness, then his latest, Men, Women & Children represents a course correction towards a comfortable career middle ground.
It also presents the toughest material Reitman has ever attempted to adapt from paperback to the screen. Though it doesn’t ask that you root for conniving lobbyists, or suspend your disbelief in the name of romance, it does tackle two topics easily fumbled: technology and teenagers. One alone is difficult, as the speed at which tech, and our relationship with it evolves can outpace a production cycle. Add to that the age gap between filmmakers and the youths they try to document, and the natural technophobia that comes with getting older, and you never know whether you’ll end up with a film like LOL by Joe Swanberg, or LOL with Miley Cyrus.
As is often the case, Reitman starts the picture off on the right foot thanks to casting alone. Men, Women & Children stars a very talented cast of Reitman familiars, up-and-comers, and comic old hands. Among them is Ansel Elgort as a high school football star who quits the team after his mother runs off to California. Now unable to communicate to his pigskin-loving father (Dean Norris), the kid spends most of his free time escaping existential dread by playing an MMORPG. Judy Greer plays the mother of would-be celebutante who puts on airs of sexual maturity by trying to hook up with a young stud, Chris (Travis Tope). Problem is, Chris’ sex drive has been rewired by a diet of Internet pornography, his predilections having gone unnoticed by his parents (Adam Sandler and Rosmarie DeWitt), who themselves use the web to arrange extramarital hookups.
That’s little more than half the significant players in a film so telescoped out that it needs check-ins on the progress of a space satellite to provide a narrative throughline. Men, Women & Children is built for breadth, not depth. Across the two generations unfold a half-dozen different stories of teenagers, adults, parents and children as they filter their relationships and sex lives through 21st century technology. With familiar subjects of divorce, body issues, and underage sex still as much a part of American life now as they’ve ever been, the added specters of cell phones and social media could have easily pitched Men, Women, & Children into a hysterical fit.
Reitman’s smartest move is to crystalize all the alarmist tendencies of his subject into a single character, and then approach everything else as non-judgmentally as possible. Said character is Jennifer Garner’s Patricia, a helicopter parent who monitors every movement and digital footprint of her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever, who continues to be one to watch), while speaking almost exclusively in scare quotes. Patricia is a caricature, but a useful one for demonstrating the extremes one must go to in order to completely protect a child not just from the internet, but the world in general. No matter how negatively technology may affect these people’s lives, trying to keep it under lock and key is a fool’s errand.
While it’s nice to see a filmmaker approach phones and social media as being more an enabler of emotional disconnection than the actual root cause, fear-mongering would have at least given Men, Women & Children more urgency and drive then it demonstrates. It’s hard not to boil down each character to their singular issue when there are so many of them. Every storyline is fitfully entertaining, but they stand mostly separate from one another. This leads to a third act collapse on all fronts that piles on the tear-inducing coincidences and dumb character decisions Men, Women & Children had largely avoided thus far. By the finale, some of the histrionics get dangerously close to the territory of after-school special.
The biggest tech issue Reitman winds up grappling with isn’t one impacting his characters but his camera. He does far better than most with conveying digital information, as we see overlays of the texts and webpages the characters are typing away at within the same frame as the character. It’s a clever solution to a modern visual problem, but narratively, long stretches of silence end up killing the pace while we wait for messages to fly back and forth. Fittingly for the film’s own general message, the times when characters are simply talking face-to-face bring out the best in the dialogue and performances.
Men, Women & Children examines such a wide array of e-issues that it occasionally stumbles upon something insightful, like how online communities can spring up to support self-destructive habits like anorexia. Most of the time, though, it’s not saying much of anything at all, and instead counts on the actors to sell you on the emotional disconnection felt by characters we barely have time to get to know. As a softly encouraging call for the audience to assess their relationship with technology, Men, Women & Children is a success. As a movie, the pixels that are all the characters and 21st century concerns of Men, Women & Children don’t combine to form a clearly rendered picture.