A Great Cast and Director Can't Bring Life To Men, Women & Children's Tangled Web.
Men, Women & Children.
Director: Jason Reitman.
Writers: Chad Kultgen (novel); Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay).
Cast: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Emma Thompson, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever.
Playing At: Angelika Film Center (Dallas).
Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children made me think real hard about why we go to the movies.
Some of us go to escape from the everyday bullshit we deal with in our day-to-day lives. Oftentimes, we go because there's just some time to kill. Some of us go out of an absurd obsession for the storytelling medium that is cinema. But, really, the easy answer here is simple: We go to the movies to be entertained.
Unfortunately, Men, Women & Children is not entertainment. It's a gutless and shallow film — and one of the most unpleasant I've ever seen.
Men, Women & Children is a modern-day story about the Internet and how it has shaped (read: ruined) lives. It follows the daily routines of a handful of teenagers and their parents. The parents are played by Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt (United States of Tara), Judy Greer (Arrested Development), J.K. Simmons (Juno) and Dean Norris (Breaking Bad). The teenagers are Ansel Elgort (Fault in our Stars), Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), Olivia Crocicchia, Elena Kampouris and Travis Tope. Emma Thompson provides the (often amusing) narration throughout the film.
There are a lot of players here, so bear with me while I explain the plot. Sandler plays a beat-down compulsive masturbator because his wife (DeWitt) is never up for having sex (with him, at least). Their son, Chris (Tope), watches so much choke-me-motherfucker porn that he's desensitized when it comes to having sex. Jennifer Garner plays a neurotic mother who's making her daughter's (Denver) teen years pure hell by closely monitoring her texts, Internet activity and where she goes when outside of the house. Basically, there's nothing her daughter can do without her every move being watched.
Still with me? Good because there are more characters you must know about. Judy Greer is Donna Clint, one of those young mothers who wants to be hip with her daughter (Crocicchia). She takes photos of her daughter in revealing clothing and sells them on a website she built just for this cause. Of course, this is nothing a 16-year-old should be doing — and certainly nothing a parent should be doing with their 16-year-old. The last remaining main characters are Dean Norris and Ansel Elgort. Kent (Norris) lost his wife to another man and she's since plastered her new, glorious life all over Facebook. Son Tim (Elgort) was the star football player who quit to play online video games because he watched a YouTube video that told him life was pointless.
One of my main problems with MW&C is that every character just kind of exists in the movie. Shame, too: Most of the actors here are gifted performers who do what they can, but all that effort doesn't amount to much. If we got to spend more time with them each, these characters might not come across so wooden — and, in turn, maybe we'd care more about their behavior.
There are plenty of large ensemble films out there that have given each character room to breathe — Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Steven Soderbergh’s
MW&C just never finds the right tone. It's half satire on how smug and weird the Internet has made our social lives, whereas the other half of the film caters to sex and then destroys it. According to MW&C's plot, if you have sex, bad things are always going to happen. For instance? One character fornicates with the football player of her dreams, then gets pregnant with astonishing rapidity and, eventually, has a miscarriage. Then, after her parents berate her at the hospital, she returns to school the next day, texting the same guy to meet up for another booty call. I guess all is well with her? Not that it matters: This is just another example of MW&C's disjointed method of storytelling.
A similar scenario happens in the great screwball comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You know the scene: Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has sex, gets pregnant and then has an abortion. We can feel her embarrassment and shock, but slowly, she moves on. In that film's case, this arc was a really bold move to take within such a looney movie. It was honest and it worked. MW&C's employment of a similar tale is hardly as effective.
Not that it doesn't try to be: Simmons — a fine actor who bangs out one of the best performances of the year later this month in Whiplash and who played a father of a pregnant teen in another Reitman movie called Juno — reacts and finally accepts his daughter's pregnancy news with more humanity than anything else that happens in MW&C. Unfortunately, his character is criminally underused.
There are quite a few more missed opportunities in MW&C, too. Sandler is known these days for taking fat paychecks to pump out shitty comedies that cater to anyone who will laugh at fart jokes and punch-in-the-dick gags, but after a career-defining performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s weird and amazing Punch-Drunk Love, he showed the world he can act when he wants to. But whereas he could've brought so much definition to his character in MW&C, his character too is mostly used as a placeholder.
If there's a real standout in this movie, it's Elgort, who had a breakout performance earlier this year in Fault in our Stars. This kid's only 20 and can project more depth and range than most actors twice his age. He's got a gift — and I hope he uses it wisely during his stay in Hollywood.
Initially, I had hopes for this film, too. Reitman and his team of writers adapted this from Chad Kultgen's novel of the same name. I've read two of Kultgen's four novels and enjoyed one of them — The Average American Male — considerably. I skipped his Men, Women & Children, and, after seeing how fraudulent this tale's many characters and behaviors are, it seems I made the right decision there.
Because I feel as if the story has to be the big flaw here. Reitman is a terrific director who has previously adapted books into exceptional stories — Up in the Air was one the best films released in 2009. With his talents, WM&C had the potential to be a great film about our losing battle with human interaction. Instead, the film handles real situations with unreal behavior and conclusions.
There's little life here — especially as compared to previous Reitman efforts. Stories about sadness, loneliness and heartbreak are fine; the experience just requires that the characters and plotlines make the audience feel something more than empty, cold and depressed. But the director failed to do that here.
Instead, Reitman has made a movie that bears no wit or soul. And that's a sentence I never thought I'd write.