Sorry Jason Reitman, I don’t know if we can be friends anymore. We had a good run but, I think it’s time to cut the umbilical cord. Though Men, Women and Children is a marked improvement over Reitman’s nearly horrendous Labor Day, it still misses the mark by a long shot, offering a muddled, obvious, sentimental mess trying to pass as smartphone generation gospel. The film’s central thesis is as convoluted as a Reddit comments section, as insincere as an emoticon apology. Reitman’s throughline that “technology bites…or does it?” is set up with the cold precision of a Mac Store. The section on why video games are bad is over here, in the front we have scummy chatrooms, the dangers of technophobia is jammed back there and right this way is the destructive power of internet speed-dating. It’s a Tinder of hot topic issues; a mosaic of D.A.R.E. videos from middle school health class. Through a girth of over-sharing, Reitman steeps the film too deep in melodramatic strife and winds up imparting a cold, stiff, impotent feeling. Like grandpa when he’s taken far too much Viagra.
The film introduces us to not just one, two, or four main protagonists but a heaping ten of them. But before we even get to any of these men, women and children struggling within their mortal coils, Reitman introduces us to a character that will have a significantly larger role than you’d ever expect. That character is a satellite voiced by the wonderfully British Emma Thompson. I guess she isn’t technically speaking actually the satellite – nor is the satellite necessarily anthropomorphized – but every time we see the thing rocketing to the outer reaches of the Milky Way – something we’re supposed to believe is significant but never is – we hear her voice and vice versa. Thompson has a few zingers and crude observations that cull early laughs but the intermittent returns to said satellite is a consummate representation of the film at large. It’s odd, ill-fitting and just doesn’t work.
Ansel Egort is one of Reitman’s many targets. He’s coping with the fact that his mom abandoned him. He just quit the football team because he’s a teenager and life is pointless because a YouTube video called “Tiny Blue Dot” says so. Because all teenagers prescribe to YouTube philosophy. Now he spends his days playing League or Legends or World of Warcraft or whatever MMO was currently popular when Reitman was filming this. Not to imply that Reitman is actually tapped into what teenagers do and don’t think is cool. I wouldn’t dare suggest that. At school, Ansel’s friends have not only abandoned him but have turned to harassing and outright bullying him. All for tapping out of the varsity pigskin squad. As milk cartoons strike him down, he’s a statue, taking it on the chin like some self-imilkating monk. With him alone, Reitman deals with abandonment issues, bullying, teenage dating and even suicide. Had the princely-named Ansel and his trials and tribulations been the sole subject matter of Men, Women and Children, we could actually be convinced to care. As is, he’s just another brick in a wall of “woe is me”.
Spontaneous abortion is yet another. Anorexia another. Cheating on your spouse just one more. BDSM porn addictions? Check. Teenage impotence? Check. Underage maybe-pornography? Double check. Overbearing, technophobe mothers are an obvious shoe in for Reitman’s catalog of problems. But I know what you’re thinking. What about a woman pimping out her own teenage daughter to online yucksters? Yup, that’s in the mix too. It’s like Reitman fingered through the DSM and earmarked every other page. Then he went Urban Dictionary and yanked some of the most common entries. Finally he made a Facebook poll of what the biggest issues facing people in 2014 were and shoehorned the top ten responses into one bloated, junky, blood-and-thunder diatribe. The product resembles spending two hours on Chat Roulette. The statement, little more than a bunch of obscured dicks in your face.
The trouble is, there really is a lot of really good acting going on within its midst. It’s a frustratingly similar case to Labor Day. Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin weren’t bad so much as they were just trapped in an awful script, working for a director than had never been anything but competent. Men, Women and Children suffers an identical blow. The actors have shown up ready to put in the work but the script lets them down at every turn. Save for (miraculously) Adam Sandler, the sole survivor of Reitman’s mushy hand and the only character whose arc feels genuine and unsentimental. The only explanation for the fierce dichotomy of talent and production is that those Hollywood folk still haven’t gotten the memo to jump ship on Reitman. Accordingly, he’s still got a designer cast to work with and they give it their all.
Even though I took issue with the trumped up dramatics of his character, Egort’s performance is airtight; frothing with pathos and interspersed with moments of true joy. Jennifer Garner excels as a dictatorial mother who safeguards each and every internet interaction for daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s easy to hate, though a bit hack-i-ly written, but Garner helps flesh her into an actual person rather than the one-dimensional character she’s sculpted as. As a villain, she works but only ironically and that’s still only because of the depth of Garner’s skill.
Another cast stand out is Dean Norris, father to Ansel and new boyfriend to the washed-up but nonetheless fashionable Judy Greer (the mom pimper). Norris was always a dark horse on Breaking Bad (side note: his garage confrontation with Walt alone should have earned him an Emmy nomination. COME ON!) and he unleashes much of the same macho man with a mushy inside energy here. That guys eyes vibrate when he’s worked up like no one else’s. And those jowls. Whoa mama.
Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt are as divided in their marriage as anal beads and bounce off each other just as much. Their romance is as snuffed out by the forces of the world as a dog queefing in the wind. Whenever sex needs to be scheduled (or, ugh, rescheduled) you should probably just buy matching his and hers FleshLights. As DeWitt and Sandlers sexual absentia mounts, they each turn to online lovers. Her via Ashley Madison – the go-to cheat on your hubby website (side note: I wonder if they paid a sponsorship for their inclusion)- him with a high class escort. And when I say high class, I mean $800 an hour high class. The only real bit of emotional honesty comes from Sandler’s awkward interaction with said hooker and how he ultimately decides to deal with his and his wife’s infidelity. But, as has come to be expected of a Reitman film, that emotional honesty is few and far between.
At its heart, Men, Women and Children is rochambeau. Not the French general, the nut kicking contest. With so many potentially nerve-striking issues on display, Reitman has money on the fact that at least one will get ya where it hurts. And he does. A few scenes legitimately sting. The duteously great acting makes this feat possible. This doesn’t however make Men, Women and Children “good” by any means. It’s just a statistical fact that if you’re blasting a shotgun blindfolded, you’re bound to hit something eventually. Can we have the old Jason Reitman back now?