Jason Reitman, director of Men, Women And Children, is one of Hollywood’s more interesting, inventive and subversive filmmakers. There are not many who could make Thank You For Smoking as a debut film before dazzling with the likes of Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult. So when you learn that his latest deals with the pitfalls, dangers and backwards nature humanity is taking thanks to the internet you’d be right in thinking there is serious potential here. But is Men, Women And Children a dot.com billionaire or a blog about cats?
The film follows a collection of characters as they all find themselves either looking for intimacy or becoming more disconnected through the magic that is the online universe. Don (Adam Sandler) and wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) both go looking for some semblance of affection through dating or escort services. Their son Chris (Travis Trope) is so dependent on porn he can’t become aroused without it while his would-be crush Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) is posting, with the help of her mother (Judy Greer), pictures online that are not exactly appropriate for a young girl. Lonely teenager Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) isn’t allowed to live a normal teen life thanks to her ruthlessly over-protective mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) while Tim (Ansel Elgort) has become so addicted to an online game his life is slowly slipping past him.
Based on the novel by Chad Kultgen Men, Women And Children wants to do for the internet what Crash did for racial stereotyping. It wants to raise awareness of issues pertaining to our online obsessive lives while making it clear we’re all lost somewhere in the ether. And in many ways the film raises some smart and interesting issues. The dangers the youth of today face in casually encountering images and videos beyond what they’re able to comprehend while the adults of the story discover the dark little secrets the world has to offer all at the click of a mouse.
It’s tonally much darker than much of Reitman’s work, only Emma Thompson’s brilliantly delivered, Wes Anderson style narration, hinting at the broader satire of say Thank You For Smoking or Up In The Air. The characters are rich and often fascinating. In fact as a whole Men, Women And Children should work. It certainly seems to tick enough boxes to draw you in.
But the film never finds a key hook. It doesn’t deal with the alienation of The Social Network, it doesn’t address the dependency on artificial interaction as Spike Jonze did with Her or the genuine terrors that lurk online as in David Schwimmer’s under-seen Trust. Instead, like the satellite Voyager metaphor which bookends the film, Men Women, And Children drifts around, occasionally capturing intriguing images without ever truly serving a purpose.
The performances are all solid but, like the confused tone of the film, never all fit into place. So Garner’s controlling mother feels more comical than many of the characters around her. Elgort continues to prove he’s a talent to watch with his morose, typically monosyllabic teenage ideal. Sandler gives one of his more serious and therefore decent performances as the frumpy and depressed dad while DeWitt is solid as the desperate housewife.
As the title suggests Men, Women And Children tries to cram too much in and therefore never quite makes some of the interesting points poised on the tip of its tongue.