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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Review: Men, Women & Children (2014)


Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever

Put on your pearls and get ready to clutch them, because apparently there's this new thing called the internet and it is going to destroy the very fabric of society. I am genuinely perplexed as to how a filmmaker as young as Jason Reitman can make a film as wildly out of touch as Men, Women & Children, a bizarre piece of moral panic propaganda that I have a hard time believing could actually speak to anyone, it's so shrill and hysterical. Despite making the wrong choice at basically every turn, Reitman's film actually does manage to eke out a moment or two of genuine emotion, but it can hardly register when it's surrounded by so much absurdity.

Men, Women & Children, based on the novel of the same name by Chad Kultgen, is a story told through multiple plot threads, all of them involving people who are miserable and unable to communicate with others face-to-face, they've become so dependent on the distance offered by technology. Among them are Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), a married couple who have grown bored with each other and begin to seek out extramarital attention on the internet, the former through an escort service, the latter through Ashley Madison, which I suppose counts as product placement when you consider the positive (at least in the short-term, when each is blissfully unaware of the other's cheating) effect the affairs have on the marriage; their teenage son, Chris (Travis Tope), who is so sexually desensitized due to the amount and variety of porn that he's viewed online that he is incapable of becoming aroused when he has the opportunity to have actual sex with an actual girl; Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who is so obsessed with the need to protect her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), from the threats which lurk on the internet that she has made monitoring her daughter's online activities a full time job and doesn't see how far she's pushing Brandy away, suffocating her with attention and treating her like a prisoner; Joan (Judy Greer), a single mother who runs a website featuring modeling photos of her daughter, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), who has already started to feed off of the imagined power of having "followers" and "fans;" Tim (Ansel Elgort), a star football player who has given up the game and is battling depression in the wake of his mother abandoning the family and has retreated into an online role playing game; and Allison (Elena Kampouris), who is anorexic and battling self-esteem issues and whose problems really have very little to do with social media, but whose story is wedged in here regardless.

During the course of the film, Don and Helen will each seek with others the intimacy their marriage has started to lack, Chris will begin a tentative relationship with Hannah, but find himself so arrested in his sexual development that he has no idea how to relate to, communicate with, or even become physically aroused by her, Patricia will attempt to control every aspect of Brandy's life, pushing her to go to greater and greater lengths just to carve out some space to breathe and express herself, Joan will begin a relationship with Tim's father, Kent (Dean Norris), after they meet at one of the meetings that Patricia hosts for parents who are concerned about their children's online activities, and then bond over how irrational they find Patricia to be, Brandy and Tim will forge a relationship almost entirely in the absence of social media, and Allison will finally hook up with the boy she's long had a crush on, and whose cruelty drove her to anorexia in the first place, and lose every remaining vestige of her innocence in the process. All the while, the proceedings will be narrated by the voice of Emma Thompson, whose dulcet tones and classy accent can do nothing to disguise how ridiculously all of this plays out.

The main problem with Men, Women & Children is that it's a warning that no one needs, yet it presents itself with all the urgency of a discovery about a new problem plaguing our society. The internet has been around for a while now, long enough that the teenagers in the story have never even known a world without it, and fears of internet predators and of children being exposed to them in a lawless realm have been around for pretty much just as long. Likewise, the observation that the increasing ease of communication created by the internet, cell phones, and social media has made it difficult for human beings to connect and communicate with each other face-to-face and without a buffer is hardly new. The tone pitched by the film frames the story as if it's meant to be an eye-opening exercise in exposing the dark underbelly of the American suburbs, but the film's intent comes several years too late to be anything even vaguely resembling a revelation. As a result many of the narrative's "important" beats just come off as laughable and overblown, playing out like so much melodramatic handwringing.

Despite this, there are actually a few stray moments in the film that manage to hit the emotional mark, which should maybe not be surprising given the cast Reitman has assembled. It also shouldn't be surprising that these moments come exclusively between characters whose story threads are ones where technology plays a marginal role and the focus is on the human element. Those moments come between Greer and Norris, whose characters have been burned in their past relationships and, after meeting and hitting it off, begin taking tentative steps towards letting their guard down with each other; and between Elgort and Dever, whose characters are both lonely and isolated and desperate for someone to relate to them and listen to them. That relationship, in particular, is the little gem buried in the mess that is the rest of this movie and had the film actually made it the focus and dropped everything else, it might have developed into a sensitive and perceptive depiction of two teenagers struggling against parental expectations and emotions they're not yet mature enough to articulate and manage. Instead this is the kind of movie where a grown woman drives a kid to attempt suicide for having the audacity to send an innocuous text message to her daughter. This movie is just ridiculous.

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