Men, Women & Children (United States, 2014)October 10, 2014
Men, Women & Children seeks to explore issues of communication in the digital era. The wide-ranging net ensnares a variety of subjects: the implications of ubiquitous pornography, the chasm separating the world views of children and parents, and the sense of isolation that can result when life on-line trumps life in "RL" (real life). Director Jason Reitman's approach is imperfect - there are times when his screenplay becomes heavy-handed and elements of pretentiousness impinge on the proceedings. In the end, however, it works, although more as a melodrama than as a piece of social commentary. The characters and their situations are interesting but Men, Women & Children doesn't say anything we haven't heard before.
This is an ensemble piece that follows the lives of five adults and an equal number of children. Adam Sandler gets top billing as Don Truby, an out-of-shape middle-aged man with a porn compulsion. Bored in his marriage with Helen (Rosemary DeWitt), he uses an on-line site to hire an escort. Unbeknownst to him, Helen is afflicted with an equal malaise. Her solution is to log into a website for married people seeking affairs and uses that to find a partner. Meanwhile, their mostly neglected son, Chris (Travis Tope), has become so accustomed to masturbating to porn that he cannot maintain an erection with a flesh-and-blood girl. The girl in question is Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a Lolita who has her own website of provocative pictures - all taken by her enabler-mother, Donna (Judy Greer). The goal is to get Hannah "fans" and, as a result of her increasing popularity, acting/modeling jobs. Hannah views her virginity as an albatross and is eager to be rid of it. Her classmate Allison (Elena Kampouris), an anorexic, is similarly eager to have sex and her desperation is a magnet to the self-absorbed guy she sets her sights on.
Donna begins dating Kent Mooney (Dean Norris), a man whose wife ran off to California. Kent's star football player son, Tim (Ansel Elgort), quits the team after his mother's abandonment and spends most of his free time playing an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). He forms a fragile connection with a shy girl at school, Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), whose mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), monitors every on-line move she makes. When she discovers that her daughter has been seeing a boy, she acts decisively to sabotage the relationship by pretending to be Brandy in a chat with Tim.
The stories crisscross to illustrate the tensions between life and love on-line and off. Men, Women & Children is at its strongest when exploring the vast gulf between many children, who exist in a world where physical and virtual are often inseparable, and parents, who come from a pre-Internet era. Some adults, like Patricia, become paranoid and overprotective while others, like Donna, fall on the other end of the spectrum. These characters are extremes but Reitman employs them in this microcosm to dramatic (and sometimes darkly comedic) purposes.
Reitman does his best not to be judgmental of the characters although he occasionally slips. A few of them - Patricia and Hannah in particular - aren't fleshed out well enough to escape their stereotype skeletons. The film spends more attention on Don and Helen (on the adult side) and Tim and Brandy (on the teenage side) so it's not surprising that those stories have the most resonance and depth. There's a lot of honesty to be found there, as well.
Reitman's approach to integrating the digital aspects of his characters' lives into the film is effective. By using the comic book approach of on-screen captions, he is able to show what every individual is reading and/or typing on their smart phone at any given moment. Because so much of the "dialogue" comes by way of texting, Reitman gives the viewer almost as much to read as if this was a subtitled foreign film. Fortunately, it never becomes distracting. The same can't be said of Emma Thompson's voiceover narration. Despite some occasionally witty quips, her verbose commentary is largely unnecessary and the scenes of Voyager making its journey toward the edge of the solar system fail in their attempt to lend gravitas to the proceedings.
The acting is solid across-the-board, but special note should be made of the biggest name in the cast. This is not the first time Adam Sandler has stepped away from the doofus personality he adopts when catering to the lowbrow end of his fan base. Films like Punch Drunk Love and Funny People have allowed Sandler to express his acting capabilities, showing how good he can be in roles that don't require him to make faces and crank out jokes. A case could be made his work in Men, Women & Children is the best he has done in his career. He's very believable here and the larger-than-life Sandler personality vanishes into the flawed, ordinary character of Don.
With Men, Women & Children, Reitman hasn't approached the lofty heights he achieved with Up in the Air and Juno, but this is a recovery from the disappointment of Labor Day. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, the screenplay finds time for moments of sardonic humor. Most importantly, although its success is of the hit-and-miss variety, the production attempts to make substantive points and tackle issues that affect everyone. There's enough compelling drama here to overcome elements of artifice. Men, Women & Children feels meaningful although perhaps not profound.
Men, Women & Children (United States, 2014)
Cast: Adam Sandler, Elena Kampouris, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Olivia Crocicchia, Dean Norris, Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner, Rosemary DeWitt, Emma Thompson
Screenplay: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the novel by Chad Kultgen
Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures