Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jason Reitman
Stars: Adam Sandler, Rosemarie De Wit, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, Olivia Crococchia, Travis Trope, Kaitlyn Dever, Dean Norris, Emma Thompson, Dennis Haysbert, Timothee Chalamet, J K Simmons, Katherine C Hughes, Will Peltz, David Denman.
Filmmaker Jason Reitman is the son of filmmaker Ivan Reitman (Twins, Ghostbusters, etc), but unlike his father who prefers lightweight comedies, he is more interested in exploring important issues and social problems. Reitman junior’s films include Up In The Air, which featured George Clooney as a toe cutter travelling the country to retrench people; Juno which dealt with the issue of teenage pregnancy; and of course the smart Thank You For Smoking, which looked at the world of advertising and mass media.
This latest drama from Reitman is a multi-generational tale that has its finger on the pulse of contemporary society and looks at the spiritual emptiness of America today. It looks at our modern obsession with technology, our insatiable addiction to social media, internet porn, and cyber bullying, and the dangers that this can cause. The film also explores dysfunctional families, infidelity, adolescent angst, the sexualisation of teens, the generation gap between parents and their teenage children, and the lack of personal communication in this increasingly impersonal digital age. Men, Women & Children is a cautionary tale for the 21st century, and provides plenty of food for thought.
Like the Oscar winning American Beauty, Men, Women & Children looks at the malaise of modern American families and takes a look at the dark underbelly of modern suburbia. The film, which has been written by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary, Chloe, etc), is based on the novel by Chad Kultgen, and it essentially follows a number of middle class families in Texas as they work their way through a number of personal crises.
The marriage of Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie De Witt) has grown stale at the moment as they seem to have grown a bit distant towards each other. Wanting to put some spark back into their relationship the pair drifts into the world of online dating that leads to some guilt inducing adultery. Meanwhile their teenage son Chris (Travis Trope) finds that his addiction to kinky internet porn is affecting his sexual performance and his relationship to cheerleader Hannah Clint (Olivia Crococchia).
Hannah is keen to become a star, and with the support of her mother Donna (Judy Greer) has set up a website that features plenty of photographs of her in intimate and revealing poses. Meanwhile, the neurotic Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) and her internet usage, and even deletes strangers from her list of contacts.
And former football star Tim Mooney (Anson Elgort, from the recent The Fault In Our Stars, etc) has grown depressed and moody following the departure of his mother. He has become addicted to the world of online virtual reality games, and quits the team, much to the chagrin of his father and disdain of his teammates. But Tim feels happier in the virtual world than the real world. And his blossoming relationship with Brandy is jeopardised by her overprotective mother.
But sometimes the plotting seems a little too contrived to be credible. With its multi-layered structure and multiple characters, the film is very much like the films of the late, great Robert Altman in style. As with most films of this type though some of the plot lines work better than others.
The film is ambitious in its reach, and it often funny and perceptive, but it also feels vaguely unsatisfactory and a little too long. Reitman manages to juggle the various narrative strands with ease, and he establishes a rhythm as he moves between the various characters and storylines, building up some tension and suspense as the storylines slowly grow darker in nature.
The film’s exploration of parents struggling to keep their children safe in this technology obsessed society rings true. The contrast in parenting styles between Greer’s more permissive mother who encourages her daughter’s sexually provocative presence on the internet and Garner’s overprotective and smothering parent who monitors her daughter’s every communication and keystroke sets up a wonderful dynamic. The actions of both parents though have disturbing consequences.
The film also relies heavily on the world of instant communication for revealing information about the characters, although Reitman has found a visually interesting way to depict tweets and email messages on the screen. There are also some telling scenes in which couples communicate via text rather than face to face.
Reitman has assembled a stellar ensemble cast, and they all bring plenty of emotional weight to their performances. Most surprising is the subtle, strong performance from Sandler, a surprising casting choice here, who eschews his usual grating manner and immature style to deliver something more mature and thoughtful. Obviously Reitman saw in Sandler the same qualities that led Paul Thomas Anderson to cast him in the romantic drama Punch Drunk Love, in which Sandler delivered one of the best performances of his career. Of the youngsters, Elgort registers strongly with a nicely rounded performance.
And there is some irony in the casting of Reitman regular J K Simmons here as the father of a teenage girl who is obsessed with her body image and who falls pregnant after a one night stand with a high school jock. In Juno he played a more sympathetic and understanding father, but here he is the opposite – disappointed, ashamed and disbelieving at first.
Emma Thompson provides a wry, profound and sometimes sharply ironic voice over narration that places the characters against the epic backdrop of Voyager 1, the first man made spacecraft to leave our solar system as it seeks out intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. This part of the story is inspired by Carl Sagan’s work The Pale Blue Dot, but it hardly seems necessary. These scenes shot in outer space certainly look great but they could easily have been cut from the film without sacrificing the main thrust of the drama.
In exploring the ways in which our obsession with technology has soured our personal relationships Men, Women & Children seems to be aiming for something profound and important. But unfortunately it tends to become a little melodramatic at times, and has enough material to fill several episodes of a television drama.