Life is grim, and so is this film
Jason Reitman disappointed many of his fans with his hackneyed, sugary film Labor Day last fall. Unfortunately, one year later, he still has not returned to top form. His latest effort is a heavy-handed mess of a film called Men, Women & Children, the title of which more aptly describes everyone who should avoid it.
Reitman’s film is based on a novel by Chad Kultgen, with Reitman and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson adapting Kultgen’s book for the screen. One can only hope that Kultgen’s book was better written, and that he received an apology from Reitman and Wilson for what they did to it here. The film, which concerns the effect modern technology is having on our collective R.L. (that’s “real life,” as the film tells us), opens with Adam Sandler’s Don watching porn on his 15-year-old son’s computer, and goes downhill from there.
That this movie even got made is odd; if the plot sounds familiar, it’s because this story was already told last year in a far better movie – – Henry Alex Rubin’s superior Disconnect. Reitman’s film is, in some instances, almost a plot-point by plot-point retread of Rubin’s picture, only magnified nearly 1000%. Whereas Rubin examined the loneliness and disengagement caused by reliance on new, omnipresent technologies with grace and subtlety, Reitman presents the same issues with little focus and startling superficiality.
Indeed, Reitman’s picture is a virtual catalog of after-school special topics. In 119 minutes, we are treated to video game obsession, pornography addiction, cyber-bullying, eating disorders, divorce and extramarital affairs, prostitution, sexual dysfunction, controlling parents, teen sex, teen suicide, and teen pregnancy. It’s hard to keep up with which character has done what and to whom, and, at some point, you may stop caring.
Given his subject matter, Reitman also makes a particularly odd choice by having Emma Thompson provide voice over narration in a charming, whimsical tone that feels egregiously out of step with the severity of the events she is describing. Also adding to the problem is that, aside from being an annoying distraction, most of what she says is schmaltzy and prosaic; “we need to deal more kindly with each other” is one such gem.
About the only positive thing Reitman’s film has going for it are a few good performances (Jennifer Garner notwithstanding; she is woefully miscast as an overprotective mother, stridently overplaying every scene). Adam Sandler, though, proves that his soulful turn in Punch Drunk Love was no fluke in his nuanced portrayal of what could be dismissed as well-worn cliché – – the sex-starved husband. He exhibits similar sensitivity here, conveying loneliness, regret, and unspoken longing often in just a single steady gaze. Rosemarie DeWitt, as Don’s wife Helen, also is terrific, skillfully portraying unhappiness, confusion, fear, and excitement simultaneously. Character actress Judy Greer does a nice job playing a mother who at first seems to be trying to relive her teenage years via her attractive, aspiring-actress daughter, but then later is able to step up to parental responsibility.
Among the teenage cast, Kaitlyn Dever, who was a stand-out in last year’s Short Term 12 continues her successful trajectory as an up and coming actress capable of masterfully displaying a myriad of conflicting emotions. And Ansel Elgort, as a former football star still reeling from his mother’s abandonment, brings layers of complexity to his role that even some adult actors couldn’t do as well.
The film ultimately paints a disturbingly depressing picture of growing up, marriage, and adulthood. It’s hard to fathom that things are really as bleak as Reitman makes them out to be, but, after seeing this dismal film, you may end up agreeing with him.
Men, Women & Children opens today at Bay Area theaters.