Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Men, Women, & Children takes a muddled, woefully confused look at the digital age and its effect on society. The film comes from acclaimed director Jason Reitman, who has directed two of the best films in the past decade: Up in the Air and Juno, two brilliant, towering features that define our generation in varying and equally affecting degrees. I’m also a fan of Young Adult, so Reitman has previously established himself as one of the strongest directorial voices in the business today. His latest effort attempts to examine social norms and the disconnect we feel from one another in a technologically attached world: we always look at our phones, spend time playing video games online, and avoid friendship and commitment when we can easily turn to technology as a means of feeling important. There’s something integral about examining such a focal point of our society, so it’s a shame that the story feels off by a few years and so out-of-touch with how society functions. Exaggerated characters and absurd actions bog down the story and make the film feel like a painful complaint about society rather than an astute observation, a startling departure for Reitman.
The film features vignettes of stories, jumping sporadically between younger and older generations. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt) are in a sexless marriage that hasn’t felt romantic in the longest time. Don opts for online porn rather than being romantically involved with his wife, while both of them spend their nights laying next to each other in bed playing on their iPads. They don’t connect in the way they used to. Their son, Chris (Travis Tope), uses the computer his dad bought him for homework to watch porn instead. Notice a trend? He consumes a lot of it which messes with his perception of women; for instance, popular cheerleader Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia) likes him but they struggle to be intimate. Hannah’s mother, Donna (Judy Greer), runs a website with her daughter that acts as a semi-modeling photo shoot that gets a bit risqué. They only make it vulgar if subscribers ask for a private shoot and, well, that’s a little off-putting considering Hannah is underage. Other stories involve Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) and her controlling, police state-like parenting with daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), along with recently divorced Kent Mooney (Dean Norris) trying to find love while his introverted son Tim (Ansel Elgort) elects for video games over interactions.
All of these stories intersect in some fashion, either by theme or character crossings. Every story aims to look at how technology changes our perception of reality, each to drastically different effects. Reitman attempts to adapt Chad Kultgen’s acclaimed novel but keeps many of the same elements that primarily work in literature, including an omniscient narrator (with the lovely voice of Emma Thompson) and self-revelatory moments where characters speak their own emotional arcs. These moments can be riveting in writing but feel derivative in this film’s landscape. Thompson’s narration expresses every emotion and motivation for each character without letting their actions speak for them, using the first half hour as a means of explaining what the characters need to change rather than letting it speak for itself. Show, don’t tell. That’s one of the oldest rules in the film book, and Reitman doesn’t let it happen. The film’s tone, however, becomes the most grating and repugnantly motivated factor of the bunch. Reitman overbears the audience with complaints in the film’s main text, crafting annoying, inane characters for the young generation and making other adults complain about one another and their children’s own social anxieties. Rather than making the characters feel like they change their minds and soften up by the conclusion, it makes the story feel like an old man is complaining about the youngin’s and their technology.
The performances are committed and subtle, particularly from Sandler and Garner. It’s always refreshing to see Sandler in these toned-down roles, so it’s even more exciting to see him avoid any type of outburst that makes his comedy iconic. He’s quiet, introverted, and emotionally torn. So why then, does his character become weak and ambivalent near the film’s end? And more specifically, why must there be a plot point about him and his wife remembering how intimate they were on the morning of 9/11? It’s inappropriate and off-putting, failing to provide timely context but instead making a tragedy a backdrop for their marriage’s failure. DeWitt is equally good as his wife, but she’s always been a terrific actress. Garner makes a borderline sociopathic, over-bearing mother compelling, even if Dever never compels as her onscreen daughter. Elgort in particular, a talented young actor, is pouty and one-note. The supporting cast isn’t given much to do besides mope and wish that technology didn’t impact their lives so drastically. Better films like Trust and Disconnect have tackled technology and its impact on the familial structure and society as a whole, respectively. Men, Women & Children falls remarkably short of commenting anything new on the subject, instead feeling like Reitman’s most out-of-touch, careless effort to date.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)