Director: Jason Reitman
Runtime: 119 minutes
Within minutes, Men Women & Children takes the honor for the year's worst and least necessary framing device. This story about relationships in the era of social media, texting, and webcams, opens in space. Yes, out space. Specifically, on the Voyager 1 space craft as it approaches Jupiter, presumably on its way to the Great Infinite Beyond to be reborn as a star child a la Keir Dullea in 2001 (as you do). There is nothing inherently wrong with the footage. In fact, it looks quite seamless and epic. But then Emma Thompson starts narrating (is she the Voyager 1? the universe? God??) and takes us from the magnificent expanses of the cosmos (don't worry, we'll get to go back there in a few months with Interstellar) down to Austin, Texas. Or at least, some pale imitation of Austin (if the film was shot there, it had this Texas native fooled). Regardless, this is where we'll find out what Reitman's latest has to say.
Because when you open with the stars and the largest planet of the solar system, it seems rather clear that you're positioning your film to really be about something. Men Women & Children does quite a bit of trying, but it the fruits of its labor are rotten. Worse, it gives off the impression that Reitman is secretly a bitter old man who thinks modern technology is nothing but bad news, despite opening with imagined footage of the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Above all, Children is a cautionary tale, though it ultimately provokes more eye-rolls than legitimate reflection about modern communication.
As in Crash and Babel (there's the first red flag), the goal is contrive drama, sorry, weave a tapestry of multiple narratives that intersect in various ways. First, there's Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), a married couple who lost the spark in their marriage because they were having sex while 9/11 was happening (no, really). While they both have affairs, their 15 year-old son Chris (Travis Tope) has looked at so much next level porn that he can't get an erection from anything vanilla (including an actual girl).
Somewhere else in town is Joan Clint (Judy Greer), a single mom who also spends a lot of time taking semi-racy pictures of her daughter for her modeling/acting website. Then, there's Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort, shot so poorly that he often looks like a toad), the former star quarterback (did you know that football is a big deal in Texas? DID YOU?) who left the team after his mom ran off to California to the shock of Tim and his stern father (Dean Norris). Come to think of it, Joan's ex-husband/baby daddy was also based in California. I think California might represent hell or modernity or something (unless you live in the San Fernando Valley, in which case you're quite literally in hell).
Finally (not really, but enough already), there's Brady Beltmayer (Kaitlyn Dever, so excellent in last year's Short Term 12) and her mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner). I'm sorry, that's incorrect. What I meant to say was, "and her mother Patricia, a human embodiment of the NSA and Lifetime Movie White Mom paranoia." Patricia can access Brandy's phone remotely, deleting innocent texts from boys like Tim before Brandy even has a chance to see them. In her spare time, Patricia hosts informational meetings about the tribulations of the web (Guild Wars and World of Warcraft? As dangerous as pedophiles, clearly.), and probably knits scarves and tea cozies with sanitized images of Christ's crucifixion on them. Ms. Garner does her best with what she's given, God bless her, but the deck is stacked overwhelmingly against her.
Yet Patricia is also responsible for the best and worst things to come out of the script by Mr. Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson (adapting the novel by Chad Kultgen, who I'm sure must be a riot at PTA meetings). St. Patricia is truly a woman of many talents. The first of her miracles is to get Ms. Greer and Mr. Norris' characters into a budding relationship. A Judy Green/Dean Norris romance is not something that makes sense at all on paper, but as performed by these two highly underrated actors, it works. Their interactions constitute the only moments when Men Women & Children comes to life as an engaging study of modern socialization. Amid all the nauseatingly simplistic writing in the film, at least Children has shown me something that I never knew I wanted and now must absolutely have. Throw in Ms. Dever, and you can consider my hypothetical ticket bought.
Alas, while St. Patricia giveth, she also taketh away. Various and sundry connections occur, relationships are tested, and next thing you know Patricia's actions lead to a suicide attempt that's punctuated by some of the most howlingly pretentious details imaginable. How I longed for the good old days when Sandra Bullock could be cured of racism by falling down a flight of stairs. They don't make 'em like they used to.
Beyond the attempted suicide, there are a littany of other sins in which St. Patricia is unable to intercede. By far the biggest offender is the handling of DeWitt and Sandler's storyline. Reitman, who has previously explored adulterous characters with such snappy humanity, has completely missed the mark here. The half baked resolution of these scenes from a marriage tries to take both sides into account, but ends up shaking a finger at DeWitt and somehow leaving Sandler the "victim." So if double standards and misogyny are your cup of tea, they boy, is Men Women & Children the film for you (to the man who cheered at one particular moment: this is not a good thing). While the film's structure practically ensured that we wouldn't get a lengthy resolution to any strand of the narrative, DeWitt and Sandler's is the one that most desperately needs it. The deprivation of such a conclusion is both narratively weak and thematically reprehensible.
In Mr. Reitman's first four films, he established himself as a darkly funny examiner of modern American/Canadian life. Despite characters who did ugly things (Thank You For Smoking, Young Adult), there remained something illuminating a vital in Reitman's nuances and narrative juxtapositions. In comedy (and tragicomedy) he blossomed as both a storyteller and a remarkable director of actors. Those first four films, then, are precisely why his two forays into straight-faced drama are so disheartening. Without an edge or a kick, Reitman's voice becomes mealy mouthed and aimless. Compare the beautiful work the director got from Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt in Young Adult to the performances in his past two films. The difference is frightening.
Of course, it's expected that artists will at some point venture outside of their comfort zone(s). Despite some growing pains, these ventures can often leave an artist reinvigorated. Unfortunately, Reitman's recent career choices call to mind an fellow director (and a fellow Canadian) who keeps trying the same old something new: David Cronenberg. Yet the gap between Reitman's genres is so much smaller than Cronenberg, which makes it so much for frustrating to seem him veer even further off course. Everyone blunders, even the greats. Hell, sometimes it's the towering icons who make the biggest mess when they screw up. That's part of artistic evolution.
Yet that same evolution turns into regression if the same mistake is repeated too many times. There's still plenty of time for Reitman to put himself on a better path, or find some purely dramatic material that's actually worthy of him. But right now, he, like Men Women & Children, seems to have run out of fresh things to say. I really did envy the Voyager by the end of Men Women and Children. It gets to move further away from our world with each passing minute.