Thursday, October 23, 2014

Movie Review: Men, Women & Children

Men, Women & Children
Directed by: Jason Reitman.
Written by: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson based on the novel by Chad Kultgen.
Starring: Adam Sandler (Don Truby), Jennifer Garner (Patricia Beltmeyer), Rosemarie DeWitt (Helen Truby), Judy Greer (Donna Clint), Dean Norris (Kent Mooney), Emma Thompson (Narrator), Olivia Crocicchia (Hannah Clint), Kaitlyn Dever (Brandy Beltmeyer), Ansel Elgort (Tim Mooney), Katherine C. Hughes  (Brooke Benton), Elena Kampouris (Allison Doss), Will Peltz (Brandon Lender), Travis Tope (Chris Truby), David Denman (Jim Vance), Dennis Haysbert (Secretluvur), J.K. Simmons (Allison's Dad), Colby Arps (Tanner), Shane Lynch (Angelique), Timothée Chalamet (Danny Vance).

Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children has already been roasted by critics, and greeted with indifference by audiences. My expectations heading into the film were low – not only because of the reviews, but because I read Chad Kultgen’s novel, which Reitman and Eric Cressida adapted, and thought it was horrible. Watching the film, I know why most critics have hated it – it isn’t a good film in any way, it’s characters are one dimensional and for the most part uninteresting, and the film merely skims the surface of the issues it raises. But the film isn’t quite as bad as many critics seem to think – and I don’t really think that the film is the screed against technology and the internet many seem to think it is. What is strange to me is that while computers and the internet have changed everything about our culture – including everything about the movies – there really haven’t been too many movies actually about the internet and social networking. What Reitman film is attempting – and I think for the most part fails to do – is to show how people live now. It doesn’t necessarily lecture about the dangers of technology, but does show how so many people live their lives online – and not in RL (or Real Life) as one character explains to a clueless adult. Much like Reitman’s last film, Labor Day, I admire the effort behind Men, Women and Children, even if I didn’t much care for the execution.

The film has been called the “Crash of the Internet” – a title that should actually belong to last year’s, far worse film Disconnect – because it is another of those films that takes a loosely related group of people, and spins out multiple storylines from it. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a middle aged married couple, with a couple of sons, who don’t really have sex anymore. Helen decides to go onto Ashley Madison and find a partner for an affair, while Don decides to go online and find a prostitute. Their son Chris (Travis Tope) is 15, and has been browsing increasingly deviant pornography from the time he was 10, and now cannot get it up for “normal” sex with a girl his own age – even when faced with the attractive little cheerleader Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah dreams of being a celebrity in the Kim Kardashian way, and her mother Donna (Judy Greer) supports this – it was her own dream once as well – and runs a website for Hannah, which started as an online resume, but now has an “members only” section of pictures of Hannah is various “costumes” requested by her “fans” – all of which Donna takes. Donna, a single mother, and starts to date Kent (Dean Norris) – a man whose wife has left him and run off the California with another man. Kent’s son is Tim (Ansel Elgort), once a star running back on the high school football, who has decided to quit this year – and seems to have no other plans than to play “Guild Wars” online. Then he meets Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), another outsider at her school, and their relationship develops rather sweetly – like we are accustomed to seeing in movies about teenagers. Brandy’s mother is Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who runs an “Internet Safety” group – and monitors every single keystroke her daughter makes online and on her phone, and is obsessive about her daughter’s safety to the point where she can no longer be a normal teenager. Then there’s Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), who lost a lot of weight over the summer – essentially by not eating anything, and going online for “thinspiration” – who, because of that weight loss, has been able to attract the attention of her crush Brandan (Will Peltz) – although it’s clear from the start the one thing he wants from her.

There are some interesting observations and scenes in the film – but for the most part, Reitman tries to accomplish so much in the film, tell so many stories, that he never really gets beneath the surface to any of these stories. The film feels dated – not because of its observations about the internet, but because of its focus on an exclusively white suburbia – where nothing is as perfect as it seems on the surface. It feels like an online version of American Beauty more than anything else – but one in which focuses on so many characters, that none of them can pull attention towards themselves.

There are good scenes in the movie. I almost wish the film had focused exclusively on Don and Helen – and truly explored their relationship – but there is something interesting about two people no longer interested in sex with each other, but still want to stay married – and find satisfaction outside their marriage. DeWitt is a talented actress – and she is able to do a lot with not a lot on page at times. Her scenes with the various men – particularly Dennis Haysbert, as her first, she comes alive – all in the eyes. Sandler is actually quite good in the film – given us a portrait of a middle aged man, who feels impotent, who strays from his marriage and also finds happiness. The final scene between these two is the best in the movie – and that’s mostly due to the way Sandler acts that final scene – with quiet confidence. It is a reminder of how good Sandler can be when he wants to be – which unfortunately only seems like something that happens a couple of times a decade.

The rest of the cast is nearly as good or as interesting as these two. True, Dever and Elgott are both fine, charming young actors – and they sell their relationship as much as the screenplay allows – but that’s not much. Crocicchia is fine as Hannah, as is Kampouris as Allison, but the movie only gives both one note to play. Dean Norris is nicely downbeat and depressed – slowly coming out of his shell throughout the movie. I never did buy the impotent 15 year old boy storyline – it felt forced. And poor Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer are given impossible roles to play, and do their best, but there just isn’t much to do with their roles.

In short, Men, Women & Children never really works. Even in its best storyline – between Don and Helen – the movie doesn’t delve deep enough, and go far enough in its examination of what their mutual adultery actually means for their marriage. Reitman has improved what was a horrible book – thankfully cutting out much of the most ludicrous stuff that Kultgen included purely for shock value. But he cannot solve the main problem with the book – that these characters are just not very interesting, or examined in any meaningful way. I appreciate what Reitman was attempting in the film – but he doesn’t pull it off in any meaningful way.

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