DIR: Jason Reitman • WRI: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilso • PRO: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook, Jason Blumenfeld, Michael Beugg, Mason Novick • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • CAST: Adam Sander, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Crocicchia, Emma Thompson
Men, Women & Children sees former wunderkind Jason Reitman return to a contemporary subject, after a baffling diversion into romantic melodrama with last year’s Labour Day. Unfortunately, Men, Women & Children is a far cry from Reitman’s masterpiece, 2011’s thrillingly tart Charlize Theron vehicle, Young Adult. Like Reitman’s other more successful features, Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009), Young Adult was a character study with a fairly narrow focus. Men, Women & Children, by contrast, is a multi-stranded portmanteau piece, in the vein of Paul Haggis’s Crash (2004) or Alejandro Gonzáles Inárritu’s Babel (2006). Although ostensibly lighter in tone than either of those films, Men, Women & Children dutifully replicates their central oxymoron – attempting to vindicate the diversity of human interaction by reducing it to a schematic.
Orbiting around the idea of how technology facilitates the increasing isolation of the very people it claims to connect, Men, Women & Children hones in on a selection of suburbanites in present day Texas, including a jaded married couple played by Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt, a pair of disaffected teenagers played by Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, and two contrasting mothers, one of whom (Jennifer Garner) tirelessly monitors and restricts her daughter’s internet and phone use, while the other (Judy Greer) prostitutes her nubile daughter’s image on a subscription website. A trite framing device, in which the travails of these people are cross-cut with the progress of the Voyager satellite through space, seems to suggest that their interactions are emblematic of present day human society in general. In so doing, the film sets out to debunk the myth of the “global village”, while unselfconsciously perpetuating the false notion that new-technology communications are a genuinely global phenomenon. Emma Thompson’s narration, which sets descriptions of space exploration alongside observations of the masturbatory habits of middle-aged Texan fathers, underscores the point, although the self-satisfied smirk with which it is delivered doesn’t make the medicine go down any easier.
The film suffers from the curious problem of feeling didactic about nothing in particular. Many critics have read it as alarmist or hectoring, although that doesn’t seem to be quite accurate. Instead, Men, Women & Children attempts to cultivate a kind of studied neutrality, presenting its “findings” without explicit comment – at least until the very end, which wraps things up in a sentimental bow. The problem with this approach is that not one of the film’s observations is new, and its technique – in which artificial suspense is created by cross-cutting multiple story arcs in an attempt to disguise that each one is predictable as a metronome – undermines the quality of its performances. Sandler and DeWitt, particularly, are very good, given how little they have to work with; Judy Greer, likewise, makes something uncomfortably credible of a part that could easily have slid into caricature.
It’s a shame, however, that Reitman is more concerned with a banal thesis based on flattening the differences between people, than with the kind of drama that emerges from their complexity. Substituting characters for specimens, Men, Women & Children is as reductive as the new media it examines. There’s a certain grim irony, then, in the inevitable social media marketing campaign, which invited people to distil their inner thoughts to 135 characters and tag them with “#mwc”. Judging by the film’s disastrous performance at the U.S. box office, it seems not many people were interested. Perhaps they pre-emptively took Reitman’s message to heart, put down their smart-phones, and talked to each other instead – presumably about a film that had something more interesting to say.
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Men, Women & Children is released 5th December.