Men, Women & Children might be the moment that writer-director Jason Reitman’s whole career has been leading up to. His latest effort mirrors his initial trilogy of hit feature films that successfully tackled big issues whilst politically deconstructing the media in a stark and highly effective manner (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air). Now, after his two more recent, politically removed features— Young Adult and the Sparks-esque melodrama Labor Day— and their lukewarm receptions from critics and box office alike, Reitman seems to be trying to close a loop and start over.
We know there are no closed cycles in narratives of life, only spirals that become more and more distinguishable by the past. With Men, Women & Children, co-written with Erin Cressida Wilson and based on the novel by Chad Kultgen, Reitman takes on media itself through the notion of the Internet as a tool for sex, arguably his broadest target yet and, as becomes clear, it may have been a little too big to adequately deal with. While he once more incorporates his knack for quirky but digestible character-driven narrative, he retains the restrained sense of melodrama from Labor Day, with the celebrity ensemble cast having to play off of both of these elements.
The story is centered on five different families in an Austin high school community, all of whom have some kind of unhealthy relationship with the Internet that Reitman builds on for the sake of social commentary. There’s the Truby family, whose patriarch Don (Adam Sandler, channeling Barry Egan) tires of masturbation and decides to hire an escort online. His wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), unsatisfied with her married sex life, joins an affair dating site, while their eldest son Chris (Travis Tope) finds himself addicted to pornography and masturbation. Then there’s Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner in an alter ego of her role in Juno), whose life revolves around micromanaging her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) and her social network, as well as spearheading an anti-media initiative in her high school and getting up everyone’s noses about it. Brandy, meanwhile, manages to keep some things hidden from her mother, including a Tumblr page where she tries to channel her frustration by posting various selfies of her sporting a pink wig and making faces.
The Mooney family is just football dad Kent (Dean Norris from Breaking Bad) and his son Tim (Ansel Elgort, with traces of his performance from The Fault in Our Stars), a star athlete who antagonizes friends and father when he drops out of the team and subscribes to an online fantasy RPG game after his mother (Candace Lantz, in online photos) abandons them. This is all before he strikes up a relationship with Brandy and develops the film’s central line of romance. On the other hand is Joan Clint (Judy Greer), a former Hollywood wannabe and single mother who takes photographs of her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) for a personal website that verges on child pornography in the hopes that her daughter will one day be a celebrity. Hannah, edgier than her mother, is a closeted virgin and cheerleader who’s willing to spread any story about herself around. Joan hits it off with Kent after they meet at one of Patricia’s uncomfortable info sessions, and Hannah aims to finally lose her virginity to Chris.
Last but not least is Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris, in a breakout performance), an anorexic cheerleader that follows a Tumblr page for tips on how to further starve herself thin to attract her crush Danny Vance (Timothée Chalamet). What makes her stand out most is the fact that she, out of all these teenaged characters, is the least opposed or even drawn to her family, who are only introduced when she passes them seated at dinner and her father (J.K. Simmons, who is arguably the best of all Reitman tropes!) obliviously brings a plate for her to her room. This is one of many solid moments throughout the film wherein Reitman illustrates the kind of counter-relationship between all teenagers and their parents, highlighting an a oft-silent space where some things are obvious but incommunicable. Eric Steelberg’s close-ups and intricate reverse-shots deserve as much credit as the actors in the film for conveying this as best as possible, especially considering the crippling effect of the story on this element of the film.
Like Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, Men, Women & Children is another ‘modern teen’ drama that takes after many of the dynamics of Peter Bogdonovich’s The Last Picture Show, such as multiple narratives and a web of disparate relationships and affairs that are only similar in that they all lack the level of personal disclosure required to be intimate.1 In moments where Reitman conveys a hyperrreality through saturating the screen in text bubbles of cellular and online activity, he makes it clear that the lives in the film are largely vapid, unfulfilled and ultimately, through this technique, conveys a sense of emptiness that permeates the film’s duration.
The omnipresent narrator within the film adds another Reitman trope to the film, with Emma Thompson guiding the audience through various characters’ internal monologues and detailing their respective backstories. Thompson uses the Voyager 2 Space Probe and its journey as a parallel – that comes off as a weak tribute to Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera – attempting to throw every character into the film into a tired, teleological narrative of a search for meaning. Despite this attention to detail in some aspects of the film, Reitman – whose extremely focused and penetrating character studies won him so much praise in the past – doesn’t effectively manage theme or genre (melodrama or comedy), with far-reaching issues of modernity, existential queries, or even the issue of faithful adaptation punctuating the film. Many of the performances themselves are terrific, especially by Garner, Kampoulis, Greer, Crocicchia and Dever – even in the moments where they are forced to follow the script’s most clichéd element. In the end, this attention to detail only results in the flaws of the movie becoming clearer: Tim and Brandy are the only people that use the Internet, neither use them for sexual or countersexual reasons, despite this, they are punished for doing so and the inconsistencies that frame the story become clear in what feels like a lazy attempt to tie a plot together.
Despite the somewhat complicated web of stories, Men, Women & Children is a limited film that leaves you hanging in multiple ways. The flatness of the majority of these character narratives is one. Another, more obvious one, is representation. Reitman’s films are known for casting for all-white, heterosexual characters, but in taking on something this broad, public and accessible, via the ensemble format, no less, it goes from extreme underachievement to severe disservice when all of the narratives cover such a limited spectrum of representation and perspective, from social class (middle) to sexuality and gender to ethnicity. The only three notable exceptions are bit characters that only stand out in this respect. One, played by Dennis Haysbert, is the first man Helen meets to screw around with (size is mentioned); the second is Allison’s friend Tanner (Colby Arps), and the third is a superfluous black school counselor (Phil Lamarr) with whom Tim in one scene can reflect on his nihilistic sociability out loud without any real attempt to communicate.
You could blame the source material, but then there’s no sign of remedying this very modern version of very conventional, bourgeois melodrama that reaches only very simplistic resolutions. Men, Women & Children gathers many stereotypes together, only to exploit them for their scantily humorous sexual content instead of scrutinizing them. In a film that aims to dissect Internet media and sexploitation this simply feels hypocritical and poorly exercised, easily falling short of whatever critiques or insights Reitman wished to make.