Men, Women & Children

Still from Men, Women & Children

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.

 

David Turpin

16 See IFCO for details)
119 minutes.
Men, Women & Children is released 5th December.

Men, Women & Children – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Labor Day

DIR/WRI: Jason Reitman  • PRO: Helen Estabrook. Lianne Halfon, Jason Reitman, Russell Smith, Nicole C. Taylor • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • DES: Steve Saklad • CAST: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Tobey Maguire, Brooke Smith

With Labor Day, Jason Reitman writes and directs an adaptation of a novel by Joyce Maynard, continuing his shift from comedies to more serious fare. It’s a labour of love, but not entirely successful.

 

In 1987, Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), convicted for murder, escapes prison and shacks up with Adele (Kate Winslet) and her son Henry (Gattlin Griffin). Fugitive Frank may be just the father figure that Henry needs. His manly presence may also help Adele recover from her long depression.

 

Adele has become a broken woman through the absence of her husband Gerald (Clark Gregg), the father of her son. Her hands shake, and she relies too much on her young Henry, who starts a coupon book as he plays her “husband for a day”. Adele explains that “there is another kind of hunger, a hunger for human touch, desire”. Clearly, Henry cannot provide that.

 

Frank’s arrival presents an opportunity to fill the void. Though he’s a convicted killer on the run, he maintains that he didn’t intend to hurt anyone. He ties Adele up, but it’s only for appearance. Brolin, who dominates the film, is a menacing presence in his early scenes, but it turns out he just wants a family too. He starts taking on the chores not done in a man’s absence: repairing the car and the furnace, fixing that squeaky door, cleaning gutters and changing tyres. He sees that the guy selling firewood has taken advantage of Adele, leaving her short. He teaches Henry as he goes about this work and trains him in batting for baseball. It becomes clear that Frank should satisfy Adele’s hunger. He has come to save her.

 

Labor Day feels like it should be a thriller, but it descends into a dull romance with conservative conceptions of gender roles. It features an elaborate sequence in which the newly-formed family bakes a peach tart. As they put the pastry on the top of the filling, Frank asks Adele to help him to “put a roof on this house”, an unsubtle metaphor.

 

Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters), made his mark with the witty Thank You for Smoking before making an even bigger impression with a series of tart comedy/dramas, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult. Labor Day is a beautifully crafted film, nicely shot, with Rolfe Kent’s atmospheric score giving the film an edge that complement’s Brolin’s work.

 

But Reitman maintains Henry’s first-person narration from Maynard’s novel, with Tobey Maguire providing Henry’s adult voice, and he develops Frank’s back-story with wordless flashbacks. Adele later recounts her history to Frank, but Reitman’s structure diffuses his focus across three main characters, and it takes so long for Adele’s voice to come through that Henry and Frank dominate, and Adele’s character lacks development. Winslet has little to do, and when Adele has her chance to make more of an impression, her character becomes even more defined by how motherhood contributes to female identity.

 

It could have added up to a nicely judged psychosexual drama, but Labor Day finishes pregnant with possibility and fails to deliver.

 

John Moran

12A (See IFCO for details)
110 mins

Labor Day is released on 21st March 2014

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Up in the Air

Up In The Air

DIR: Jason Reitman • WRI: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner • PRO: Jeffrey Clifford, Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman, Jason Reitman • DOP: Eric Steelberg • ED: Dana E. Glauberman • DES: Steve Saklad • CAST: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey

Another Jason Reitman movie, another slick awards contender. Up in the Air, just his third directorial feature, has been building some serious buzz in Hollywood celebratory circles since it premiered at Telluride last year. Only this time, instead of tobacco lobbyists or hip pregnant teenagers, Reitman’s latest focuses on the dysphoria of the current economic climate, the dislocation of modern man. Sounds like a winning formula, right? It doesn’t hurt that George Clooney stars in a role tailor-made for his specific talents: he pours himself into it with the precision of a fully-automated Nespresso machine – potent and pleasing – but a little predictable, much like the film itself.

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a corporate downsizing expert who flies around the country calmly and efficiently firing employees from companies that no longer require their services. He also moonlights giving seminars outlining the benefits of living a baggage-free existence. ‘Make no mistake, your relationships are the heaviest components on your life’, he tells his audience – for Bingham keeping your distance and severing ties with family, friends and lovers is the key to living well. He’s suave. In control. This guy is just asking for something to come along and turn his world upside down, and alas it does; not one, but two dynamic women threatened to break open his ‘cocoon of isolation and banishment’. The poor fella might have to learn to keep his feet on the ground.

Bingham first meets Alex Goran, a fellow (female) high-powered frequent flier, played by the effortless Vera Farmiga, with whom he instantly hits it off after catching her eye at a plush stopover bar. Their form of flirtation involves comparing loyalty club cards and exchanging elitist double-entendres, before hitting the hotel room. Slightly intimidating, she’s different from most women he’s encountered in the past – apparently unconcerned with settling down, and motivated by status. ‘Just think of me as you with a vagina’, she assures him over the phone when he’s unsure of how to sensitively proceed. Meanwhile, a motor-mouth young executive named Natalie Green (rising actress Anna Kendrick) arrives in his boardroom to shake things up at the corporation. Fresh from Cornell, she introduces a scheme to eradicate the need for travel in the company and instead fire people via teleconferencing. Concerned that this might hinder the humanity of the process (but more concerned with consolidating his position), Ryan offers to take her along on the job, to learn a thing or two before she re-structures the whole enterprise and he has say goodbye to flying high.

Once these conceits are in place, the film finds a nice rhythm and sharp spectacle, as you’d expect from a production of this calibre. There are plenty of laughs, mainly thanks to Kendrick’s uptight dramatics sparking off Clooney’s calm reserve. Bingham reveals to her his goal to reach 10 million air mile bonus, to which she replies, ‘That’s it? You’re saving just to save?’. There’s a wonderful scene in which Clooney, Fermiga and Kendrick discuss relationships and commitment – the dynamic between a yuppie and the apparently content corporate high-fliers she pertains to one day be is very engaging.

Despite being written a year before the global economic downturn, the film does tap into the sense of despair currently felt by the American people. As Clooney fires a succession of decent folks who crumble to pieces at the news – these scenes are all the more effective with the knowledge that those made redundant are not played by professional actors, but by the actual recently unemployed. It gives the film a certain credibility…then again, it also highlights the reality that these multi-millionaire actors are coercing a reaction from ‘ordinary’ people for the benefit of their own elite product…within the realm of this story however, it works.

Unfortunately the film loses steam as it approaches the third act – the characters try to reassess their values and become more intimate, but the hollowness of the story shows through. Kendrick’s trilling becomes more irritating than endearing and Clooney’s conviction more monotone – yet Farmiga remains consistently compelling and is one of the film’s more worthwhile appeals. Sensing a deeper connection with Alex, Ryan takes what he sees as a huge step and invites her to his somewhat homely sister’s wedding. However, set against these ordinary characters, our leads seem more like caricatures, and the choice of switching to handheld digital for the entire wedding montage is very stylistically jarring.

In the end the film satisfies, but not as completely as it could – it’s a shame because for the most part Reitman deftly strikes the balance between sleek satire and genuine pathos. Certain reversals however are not adequately built up or elaborated to achieve the emotional response Reitman wants and the audience deserves. Ultimately, this is entertainment with plenty to recommend it but not much to truly remember. If you ever watch it in-flight you may start to forget it once you reach your destination.

Eoghan McQuinn
(See biog here)

Rated 15A (See IFCO website for details)
Up in the Air is released on 15th January 2010

Up in the Air – Official Website

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