MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN Review

I watched with my iPhone out, taking notes on it as I sat alone in the theater with the latest from director Jason Reitman unspooling in front of me. As the man behind Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air he will always have my attention, but as he somewhat pretentiously preached to what will no doubt be the choir about how technology has brought us together by pushing us apart I couldn't help but feel this was redundant and worst of all, boring. It makes sense as ultimately this is a film about people who are bored so it is a question of how to make boring people interesting and the conclusion seems to have been to cram as many boring people as possible into the story so there would be plenty of problems to fill out a 100-minute movie. That sounds harsh, but the problems don't stop there and the truth is this is such a dramatization of man-made, first world, too personal too understand when casting a wide net problems that it all comes off as trying and whiny. It isn't meant to be that way; Reitman clearly wants to elicit serious reflection, to inspire questions and probably even likes to think he reveals something to us about ourselves that we didn't already know, but as I sat tapping away at my screen I felt no remorse or reflection, but rather just appreciated the irony. Men, Women & Children ends up coming off, not as a meditative look at how much closer to meaningless our existence is as we create such issues as those under examination, but rather a film so perverse, dark and one-note for the sake of being all of those things that it ends up feeling insignificant. I use "insignificant" because we are asked multiple times to consider what really matters in our world, but more than trying to offer some existential philosophy on how the ramifications of our instantly gratifying society weave into these issues I was instead left wondering if this was truly representative of the high school experience these days or has Reitman actually turned into as one note a director as I suspect his portrayals of the human race are. I understand the characters function as a means to tell a specific story and relay a certain theme, but while the film wants to cut deep in that it tries to get on a level typically reserved for minimal interaction it comes off more as a collection of extreme examples with no depth or dimensions to give us reason to feel affected or involved.

Don (Adam Sandler) and his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are in a bit of a rut with their relationship.
Based on the novel by Chad Kultgen and narrated by Emma Thompson, Men, Women & Children is a film about how we come to be at certain points in our lives. The first example brought to the table is the marriage of Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt). Don is a face in the crowd at a corporation and Helen is a cubicle worker, but we don't know much more about them other than this and the fact they have hit a rough patch in their relationship that includes no sex life. Don seems to want to try and rekindle some type of romance, but Helen seems so turned off by Don and his cloying that we wonder what he might have done in the past to cause such resentment; don't worry though, we get no such insight. Don and Helen have two sons, the oldest of which (Travis Tope) was exposed to online porn at such an early age he finds it difficult to become aroused by typical desires and instead tends to like those outside societal norms. This becomes an issue when he begins "dating" head cheerleader and aspiring celebrity Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah and her mother, Donna (Judy Greer), have put together what is essentially an online resume in hopes of jump starting her career. Something is a little off with Donna though as she seems a little too invested in her daughters success, almost as if she wanted it as much for her daughter as her own validation (original, right?). As much as Donna is obsessive though, she has nothing on Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) who does everything in the book to keep her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), away from any potential harm that might come to her online. In secret, Brandy begins an innocent relationship with Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort) who was once the star football player, but quit after his mom left he and his father (Dean Norris) to fend for themselves. All of these teenagers go to the same high school of course which allows a connection to overlap with the parents involved. Not to leave any situation unturned, Reitman also throws in a subplot about an anorexic classmate (Elena Kampouris) who did it all for the sake of losing it to the guy that doesn't care. This subplot also allows for an appearance by J.K. Simmons who is literally present for two short scenes and maybe three lines of dialogue. Of course, this may be on purpose given he'd have to be a neglectful parent to not notice the "biggest loser" changes his daughter's apparently been through, but still, what a waste.  

As I mentioned before, the first question I asked myself was how truly representative of today's high school experience was this? It's been nearly ten years since I was in high school, before Facebook even allowed high schoolers to create a profile, so is this really how dark and disturbing the loss of innocence has become or is this simply heightened darkness with the intent of making a point? Either way, that it is within the realm of possibility and likely happens to some degree across the country is baffling. The way in which these kids talk about sex is so blasé that "hooking up" is a verb thrown around as if it were "read." There is no substance behind it, no meaning that even elicits the right of passage or initiation it once held. Rather than being a milestone it now seems a dark necessity to overcome if you want to be taken seriously in what their (the teenagers) idea of society is. I suppose that if Reitman and his film have me contemplating to this point it did do something to stir up a reaction. I appreciate it's efforts to not take the easy route and make Brandy the rebellious teen and Hannah the wise beyond her years young woman despite their upbringings. In fact, the way in which these kids are conditioned give way to the interesting idea of how the role of parenting has changed as one must now essentially conduct not only who their children are in life, but who they purport themselves to be online. It is still a balancing act of knowing when to let your children have their own experiences and sheltering them for an acceptable amount of time and Men, Women & Children is here to display how going too far on either end can have repercussions not only on the lives of the test subjects, but within the authority figures as well. In the case of Brandy and Tim, the most interesting story of the bunch, it is that of a young man trying to figure out who he really is in the scheme of things while feeling trapped in his pre-determined role his dad has already set-up for him. The ideas with which Elgort's character plays are almost the only compelling thing here as he contemplates that cosmically, he and nothing else matters, but that he feels something when talking to Brandy might at least be meaningful.

Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Tim (Ansel Elgort) on the other hand are embarking on something seemingly special.
The main idea behind the film comes back to this question of significance in that it begins by putting into perspective the enormity of what we exist within and how insignificant we seem in that big picture. In zooming in on the problems these people face it puts upon a sense of self-importance that feels cocky, as if we have no right to feel any which way, but rather should simply be thankful the cosmos aligned and allowed us to experience existence at all. Again, it is an admirable endeavor to try to step back and take a look at how minimal our problems are by exposing them in this manner, but for the majority of the characters there is no question of what is meaningful, but more of how they came to be in their current, undesirable situations. In many ways, I wished Reitman and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson might have written in a character that realized the vicious cycles they were entering. There are so many people making different missteps here, but none of them are able to step back and see the lessons the film is trying to preach. This brings me to an inherent issue with the structure of the film in that it doesn't give itself enough time to develop the stronger stories in favor of introducing the more minor ones that aren't as interesting or involving. I remember checking my watch and realizing the film only had maybe half an hour left and feeling it had only just begun to really dig into the crux of the issues at hand. I wondered what it might be able to do from that point out that would be both satisfactory and as gripping as it so desired. In short, it only went on to remind us more of how we're all obsessed with sex and that this driving need to constantly feel new and inspired is a drug that takes over our life and consumes us. There are no other facets to any of these characters besides the aforementioned Tim and Brandy and so we understand little to none of the motivations for these peoples actions besides the fact they've become desperate. I realize much of this sounds like a mixed bag of failed ideals and psychological themes thrown together to sound smarter than the film, but that is in fact what the film itself feels like. An effort with ambition, sure, but one that needed some serious refinement.