LFF: Men, Women & Children review

Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children would attempt to explore the status quo of social connections in the internet age. Unfortunately, despite having what appears to be a very strong point of view, Reitman does seem to lose interest in his ostensible subject, and instead diverts his energies into creating something of soapy drama.

Reitman’s screenplay, which he adapted with Erin Cressida Wilson from a book by Chad Kultgen, interweaves a number of separate plot lines, some of which are far more successful than others. The most successful by far is an the account of a fractured marriage, in which Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are each exploring extra-marital affairs through dating sites and online escort services.

Their son, Chris (Tracis Tope), also has issues, feeling numb to the sexual advances of a classmate, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) as a result of his indulgence in the extremes of internet pornography. Hannah is a popular student and also very popular online, thanks to a website set up by her mother to help with her acting career. This website is actually little more than pictures of Hannah in suggestive poses, and even has a private members only section. Her mother, Donna (Judy Greer), is lying to herself about the site, convincing herself that it is somehow a good idea.

Into Donna’s life steps Kent (Dean Norris), whose son, Tim (Ansel Elgort) is addicted to online video games and has given up football. Tim is also starting a relationship with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner) is so obsessed with the dangers of the internet that she restricts her daughter’s use, monitors everything she does online and even uses her mobile phone to track her movements.

And then there’s one more plot line, which doesn’t tie in too neatly with the others and is, coincidentally, also the weakest. This is the story of Allison (Elena Kampouris), a teenage girl with severe body image issues.

The intention is that these strands will be blended together by Emma Thompson‘s voiceover, portentously delivered over shots of the Voyager probe exploring the outer reaches of deep space. Thompson’s voiceover, thanks in part to the juxtaposition of her British accent with the many in-narrative American ones, comes across as rather patronising and school teacher-like.

The characters in Men, Women & Children are mostly simplistic archetypes, there to provide on-theme material and rarely doing anything that will surprise the audience. They also cover the same material as the voiceover, rendering it even less useful.
The film falls easily into hysterically decrying how terrible social media is. There are even shades of panic movies like Reefer Madness, though the attempts to whip up a scare are thankfully less overt. Nonetheless, it does seem like Patricia could be the film’s intended hero, despite her patently extreme stance, as she’s proven right and the internet is shown to be dangerous after all.

There are some very clear visual examples of quite how disconnected everybody in Reitman’s world has become. One mall scene shows the characters walking around interacting with their phones, graphic bubbles appearing over their heads to demonstrate what they are doing. In the opening shot of this scene, literally every individual is engaging with their phones, without exception. This isn’t a realistic portrayal, and I might consider that the intention is satirical and aiming for comic effect, even though there’s not much else going on to support that reading. Men, Women & Children is a drama, and for the most part a rather serious one.

Compare that sequence in the mall to the wonderful shots of Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) pretending to use her phone in Reitman’s 2011 film Young Adult.

At it’s worst, Men, Women & Children brought to mind Paul Haggis‘ Crash, the Oscar-lauded “message movie” that landed so heavily on the nose it smashed right through and out of the back of the skull.

There is a high quota of weakly-conceived, lecturing nonsense in Men, Women and Children, but there is thankfully some rewarding drama too. The relationship between Don and Helen joins many other recent screen portrayals of troubled marriage, but is commendably mature in its dynamics and concludes in a very surprising fashion.

Greer’s appearance as Donna is another highlight, despite its somewhat obvious trajectory. Her performance is multi-layered, and transcends the brief arc the film has found for the character. Unfortunately, many of the strongest threads of Men, Women & Children have been truncated like this.

Aside from working as a drama, the film may have worked better as polemic if it didn’t resolve in a neat and tidy climax that seems to have forgotten the formerly all-important message that was, in earlier sequences, being absolutely blasted home.

Men, Women & Children will be in US cinemas from the 17th of October and UK cinemas from the 28th of November.