Review: “Men, Women & Children”

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I created my Facebook account in the summer of 2007, when I was fourteen years old. At that age, the appeal of Facebook was obvious, and over seven years later it still is; we are free to shape our insecure selves (those insecurities being much more prominent in our teens) any way we want and that’s what everyone sees online. While I couldn’t have articulated why at fourteen, the idea of Facebook seemed immediately natural, a no-brainer; it was what we had always wanted but never knew it.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Facebook had just as many downsides as it did benefits. For one thing, miscommunication runs rampant when the direct human-to-human component is taken out of the conversation. In addition, anyone can say anything they want online and feel a bit more secure or confident without anyone looking back at them from the receiving end. And of course, seeing what everyone else is doing while you’re sitting at your computer looking at what they’re doing is an isolating experience. Seven years later, not much has changed and people are still logging in daily to check for that little red flag at the top-right corner of the screen that reminds them they’re not alone.

But you already know all of this! When I was fifteen and realized “hey, this Facebook thing might be more of a problem than a helpful tool,” I likely thought I was the only one who made this realization. In reality, everyone else my age was figuring out the same thing. We all grew to realize fairly quickly that social media was a sort of trap, causing a disconnect between people, directly antithetical to its intended, promised purpose. Everything I’ve written so far is not new, nor is it a unique insight. In fact, it is such a simplistic and easy-to-understand concept that any dumb fifteen year old can understand it (I know from experience).

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

What I’ve demonstrated is the main problem with Jason Reitman’s baffling misfire Men, Women & Children. It wants so badly to be “The Internet Movie,” the definitive look at how human interaction has changed in the last decade and where we are now. Trouble is, it comes off as the film equivalent of the fifteen year old who tells everyone, “don’t you see, people! Social media is hurting us,” thinking they’ve discovered something profound about the human experience when they’re really just stating the obvious. In other words,  Reitman’s intentions are good, but ultimately the movie is decimated by its own heavy-handed pretentiousness in a perfect storm of preaching-to-the-choir filmmaking.

Just like Facebook seemed to me like a perfect idea at first, the concept of Men, Women & Children is full of infinite promise. It’s an ensemble movie about a bunch of different American kids and adults dealing with their issues through technology, only to cause themselves more trouble. This is the kind of movie I was looking for since The Social Network, one that didn’t deal with the cause of social media but rather its effects.

Luckily, the first thirty-to-forty-five minutes of the film is very strong. There’s a playful sense of humor, which all feels fresh since no movie has been so invested in mining the humor that comes from our use of and reliance on technology (there’s a particularly memorable emoji gag). But as Reitman has practiced with his best movies Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult, he is — and I’ll stress again, I’m talking about the first half or so — able to switch from humor to drama with relative ease.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

It helps that Reitman has once again put together a cast of very promising performers who are all committed in their roles, for better or worse. In the adult camp we’ve got Adam Sandler in the kind of performance he thrives in, along with Rosemarie Dewitt, J.K. Simmons, Judy Greer and even the All State guy (whose appearance got an unintended laugh from my audience), among others. The kid actors are even more impressive, including Kaitlyn Dever of Short Term 12, newcomer Elena Kampouris, and another solid performance from Ansel Elgort. Olivia Crocicchia of the criminally under-watched Terri is the standout here, playing up teenage girl egotism in a way that is so nauseatingly believable.

There are also great visual flourishes going on throughout the film, with authentic text and internet graphics popping up seamlessly onscreen. This year has been absolutely full of this new method (Neighbors, Non-Stop, Chef, The Fault In Our Stars, etc.) but, as you’d expect from a movie that is specifically about this way of interacting, it looks slicker and features more variety here than in those others. It’s a good thing too, because nothing else about the film looks at all distinctive or well-shot.

So, what goes wrong? Eh, mostly everything.  The characters are not at all like real people; each and every one is a hyperbolic, almost cartoonish illustration of various technological vices. We may see shades of ourselves in some of them, but their actions are too exaggerated and their dialogue too on-the-nose to really make them come off as living, breathing human beings. While their cartoonish personalities allow for plenty of humor, the film eventually takes some very dark turns. At this point, Reitman suddenly wants us to see these characters as believable humans, and to empathize with them as such. This is where it becomes nearly impossible. I didn’t emotionally buy into the vast majority of the characters early on, so when Reitman delivers each one’s emotional ‘payoff’, it feels almost hilariously anticlimactic. Only the Greet/Crocicchia thread worked for me, maybe because being over-exaggerated is part of their characters.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

The worst offender is Jennifer Garner, playing an even more unhinged maternal figure than she was in Juno. She’s supposed to represent the overprotective mother figure, but comes off so over-the-top that she appears to be mentally ill. I couldn’t stop thinking of the equally terrible performance given by Jodie Foster in last year’s Elysium. At one incredibly heavy-handed moment of dialogue, her daughter played by Kaitlyn Dever tells her something along the lines of “the only thing dangerous is you”. Well said.

But Garner notwithstanding, this is a problem with the writing, not the cast. Ensemble films are always hard to get right because each storyline has to be equally engaging, but Reitman simply can’t achieve such a balancing act. If Diablo Cody (who shot to fame because of Reitman’s Juno) had written the script, we would likely have had more authentic dialogue and a structure that didn’t eventually lead to five or so soap operas going on simultaneously, with everyone reaching their emotional peak at the same time. And then there’s the abrupt, depressing ending. It took me halfway to the theater exit to realize that, even though Reitman technically gives each storyline a climax, nothing was ever really resolved. We’re left with a limp cautionary tale that seems to say “if you are as crazy and unrealistic as these people are, then be careful on the internet!”

Men, Women & Children is a lot like Jaden Smith’s tweets: the things it says are super simplistic and sometimes illogical, yet it somehow thinks it’s saying something utterly profound and essential. Sure, reading Jaden Smith tweets can be hilarious for a bit, but I wouldn’t want the experience of reading them to last too long and I certainly wouldn’t pay for it. It’s a bit odd that Chef will ultimately turn out to be the best film about our relationship with technology this year, even though Men, Women and Children is specifically about that subject and Chef is not. That’s a testament to just how badly Reitman missed the mark here, with what is easily one of the biggest disappointments of 2014.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

Score: 2.5 out of 5

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