Men, Women, and Children (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Men, Women, and Children (2014)

Please join the Twitch stream at Can't Stop the Kittens. Andrew's writing is on hiatus, but you can join the kitty stream at night with gaming and conversation during the day.

How has technology changed the way we connect to people?  Has it changed our sexual impulses?  Is it healthy?  Jason Reitman's latest film, Men, Women, and Children, examines these questions with a sprawling cast.

Against the grainIs Men, Women, and Children a comedy?  I laughed a lot, but considering one of those chuckles was directed at a suicide attempt I'm not sure my response was calibrated properly to the scene.  Is it a drama?  I felt different emotions wavering from disgust to mild appreciation during its various plot threads but that was more at the general craft than the film itself.  Is it a commentary on how the family unit is getting destroyed with the advent of technology?  I guess, but only if you accept the technological boogeyman premise nearly two decades out of date.

In truth, Men, Women, and Children is another one of those difficult to define films director and screenwriter Jason Reitman has made since he debuted with Thank You For Smoking in 2005.  Reitman's had an amazing string of films since then with Smoking followed by Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult.  Put in comparison with those other films it's easy to see the similar blend of satire, pain, and style in Men, Women, and Children.  However, those earlier films had a strong lead to bounce the complicated tone from.  Men, Woman, and Children (MWaC from this point on) shows the tonal disaster that awaits when the same complicated approach is split up between over a dozen characters in at least eight different plot threads.

One character drills a hole in a soft football and fills it with lotion to prepare himself for sex. This is something we laughed about with pies, and treat with weird seriousness now.

One character drills a hole in a soft football and fills it with lotion to prepare himself for sex. This is something we laughed about with pies, and treat with weird seriousness now.

I can't say to what degree Reitman and coscreenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson based their screenplay on the source novel of the same name by Chad Kultgen.  From the results onscreen I can safely testify not nearly enough of the source material was thrown away in the transition.  Each plot thread has the same basic idea, show how technology has warped the sexual development of adults and children over the last generation.  The result is a mess of conflicting leads and visual impulses.  Following one thread shows how Kent (Dean Morris) doesn't understand technology and is scared of the video game his depressed son Tim (Ansel Elgort) is obsessed with.  Both start new relationships with Joan (Judy Greer), the mother who's started a modeling website for Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), who wants to be on television and so on and so on and so on.

That's not even half the cast, and with so many people the question becomes how to visually present each story that is unique to that person while tying into the overarching narrative point about technology's damaging effect on sex and relationships.  Reitman's solution is to show the direct effects of the technology in floating bubbles like graphics for texts, video links, reflections of video games, and so on.  This isn't an approach that works with the logic of its characters.  Why would Hannah see the world in floating texts when she wants to be on television?  For that matter, why isn't the visual narrative more fast paced or crisp when the plot centers around the video game obsessed Tim?  Oddly enough, the boring approach causes more confusion about the contradictory visual presentation within each character arc than if MWaC was a mess of different visual styles.  It might have been a mess, but it could have been interesting.

Reitman's previous films brought out the absolute best in their performers.  Aaron Eckhart and Charlize Theron both reached their career highs in Thank You For Smoking and Young Adult, so I was excited to see what Reitman might be able to drag out of the likes of Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt.  The standout moments from Norris and Kaitlyn Dever, who plays the daughter of an overprotective mother (Jennifer Garner) and starts dating Tim in secret.  They're able to create moments away from crux of the film where technology destroys relationships.  But Sandler, who I still hope has one more great performance in him after Punch-Drunk Love, received some of the oddest direction in scenes where he sits in a room by himself but seems to react to the narration provided by Emma Thompson.  One chilling moment late in MWaC suggests he could have been a powerhouse in the film, but his performance suffers as badly as the others from the erratic flow of the storyline.  Poor Crocicchia's character disappears completely until it's time to parade her around in skimpy clothing again.

Guitar Hero is now a decade old, and the dry reveal that these guitars are plugged into a video game dates MWaC in a poor way.

Guitar Hero is now a decade old, and the slow pan to reveal these guitars are plugged into a video game dates MWaC in a poor way.

I know Reitman is a smarter and more sensitive filmmaker than those "sexy child" scenes suggest, and there is a certain amount of nuance to the way Greer communicates the moral awakening of Hannah's mother.  The issue just goes back to the bad marriage of tone with image.  Carl Sagan's famous speech about the pale blue dot has an important place in the MWaC and shows just how terrible different tones are handled.  At roughly the halfway mark of MWaC, Reitman stops the semi-serious tone and starts torturing the characters.  The pairing of their technological /personal crises and Sagan's dot is troubling.  Either the problems of these characters mean nothing because of their tiny context in the universe, or the grand perspective is meaningless due to the immediacy of their troubles.  The former is dramatically unsatisfying as it softens the immeasurable pain of the characters, and the latter makes me wonder why Sagan's blue dot was discussed at all.

MWaC is not a film I completely disliked until all the characters started suffering their individual fits of torment.  Reitman's film has all the worried hand-wringing of a fretting liberal and mixes it with the ethical impulses of a conservative Chick Tract.  It's such a damningly odd film that I can't hate it and I was briefly tempted to recommend it as a curiosity.  But that would be putting the technological powers I have at my command to poor use.  Only a director as talented as Reitman could make a film this terrible, and it's best to avoid.

If you enjoy my writing or podcast work, please consider becoming a monthly Patron or sending a one-time contribution! Every bit helps keep Can't Stop the Movies running and moving toward making it my day job.

Tail - Men, Women, and ChildrenMen, Women, and Children (2014)

Directed by Jason Reitman.
Screenplay written by Jason Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Dean Norris, Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler, and Judy Greer.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (0) Trackbacks (0)

No comments yet.

Leave Your Thoughts!

Trackbacks are disabled.