Cast: Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Dean Norris, Julie Greer, Jennifer Garner, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever Olivia Crocicchia, Travis Tope, Emma Thompson
Director: Jason Reitman
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In this digital age of online film criticism, it's very tempting to get caught up in the whole aggregator-based rating system that turns a movie's artistic merit into a "rotten" vs. "fresh" argument. What this means is that flawed, interesting films that don't fall squarely into either category lose their place in the cinematic conversation. The latest from Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) seems to have suffered from an almost gleeful critical bashing, the kind of derisive takedown that also plagued Wally Pfister's ambitious sci-fi drama Transcendence, a film with plenty of flaws, but which is much better than the critical consensus would indicate. Most filmgoers don't care about critical reception, and for good reason, since critics can be elitist buffoons given to hyperbole. Men, Women, and Children is a film that's pissing off a lot of critics, with a slew of 1 star reviews and worst of the year proclamations making the rounds, but is Reitman's morality play about living in the internet age really a heavy-handed dud of colossal proportions?
Truthfully, the feverish negative reaction to Men, Women, and Children seems to indicate a didactic response based primarily on the fact that a film about how technology is disconnecting us from meaningful relationships is coming from a successful young filmmaker giving us a bunch of self-loathing middle-class white people complaining about their trite middle-class problems. While this seems problematic on the surface, the truth of the matter is that critics are doing exactly what they claim Reitman's film is doing; namely, being extreme and reactionary. Though it tries to explore a variety of digital age issues; internet porn addiction, the widening gap between parents and children, the isolation that can result from hiding behind digital avatars, the thematic thrust here isn't necessarily about how technology is an evil force. Rather, it reveals how self-delusional, vain, and destructive people will always be self-delusional and destructive, an intrinsic value that's existed within human nature long before Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr.
Men, Women, and Children follows a variety of characters living in a Texas town and charts their self-involved behavior and inability to forge meaningful connections. There's bored husband Don Truby (Adam Sandler) and his equally bored housewife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), both of whom seek sexual fulfillment through online escort-type services. There's the socially awkward football player Chris (Travis Tope) who's so addicted to internet pornography that he can't perform sexually when pursued by cheerleader Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia), who herself harbors a dark secret involving her mother (Judy Greer) pimping her out on a questionable modeling website. Meanwhile, mopey teenager Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort) quits the football team, much to the chagrin of his father (Dean Norris), and spends most of his time playing MMORPGs with his online "friends". Tim has unrequited feelings for a bookish classmate Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), whose tightly wound mother (Jennifer Garner), spies on every single one of her daughter's keystrokes and online clicks, becoming increasingly paranoid about online predators to the point where her actions become irrational.
Such a setup sounds like a recipe for a melodramatic ridiculousness, and certainly, the film is often obvious and contrived, but it's also heartfelt and graced with wonderful performances. Adam Sandler is nicely subdued as a man struggling in his marriage and given to infidelity. A late scene with DeWitt in their kitchen is some of Sandler's best work as a dramatic actor, and holds out further hope that he will continue pursuing more interesting projects. Norris is also very good here as the suffering husband whose wife left him and his son alone to pursue another man, and his scenes opposite Greer, whose also lonely and adrift, are filled with vulnerability and humor. Meanwhile, Elgort and Dever somehow manage to overcome the melodramatic plot devices and give believably low-key and honest performances as the star-crossed lovers. Though not all of the subplots work, and a few are abruptly dropped or given short shrift, their story arc remains emotionally resonant.
Reitman also employs an array of onscreen captions, texts, and scrolling menus populating the screen at all times, a device that's been used often lately, but is nonetheless effectively integrated here. More problematic is an omnipresent narrator (voiced by Emma Thompson) whose arch musing on all of the character's shortcomings can be sarcastically humorous, but is just as often ham-fisted and expository. Shots of the Voyager Spacecraft drifting in the cosmos and references to Carl Sagan's "Blue Dot" won't help matters for those claiming Reitman is going for a big statement about the way we live now, but if anything, these ambitious flourishes simply speak to the film's overriding message that we aren't the center of the universe and should therefore be more compassionate with our fellow man. Social media and the ever-changing technological landscape has only given us the ease and comfort for acting out morally duplicitous impulses, and the characters in Men, Women, and Children would self-sabotage even if these technological shortcuts didn't exist. Human society, particularly in Western culture, has always prized selfishness and insularity over charity and community; it's simply that now, in an age of digital revolution, the internet has simply placed another wall between parents and children, husbands and wives, audiences and critics.