Reitman Hits Nerve With "Men, Women & Children"

A husband and wife lie in bed with their tablets, playing a silent game of Words With Friends. It’s the most intimate they’ve been in months. A teenage boy engages in a World Of Warcraft-esque online game with his best friends, none of whom he’s met in person. A teenage girl surfs the web in search of weight loss tips. Her emaciated fingertips hardly seem strong enough to enact a mouse-click. A mother photographs her scantily clad 15 year-old daughter, intending to sell the pictures via online subscription to hordes of middle-aged men.

Moments that would serve as table setting in most films are the primary make-up of “Men, Women & Children,” a fragmented, overstuffed, and frequently compelling picture from Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up In The Air”). Like the technology-obsessed, sexually-frustrated subjects of his film, the writer-director isn’t entirely aware of the power he wields, but the work is dynamic and provocative all the same. How could it not be? The sprawl of 21st century technology has invaded every corner of our lives – romantic and otherwise – and Reitman’s attempt to translate that to the big screen is a worthy pursuit, if not a wholly successful one.

As a character piece spackled with sci-fi – a premise that would have been sci-fi a mere 15 years ago – the film features space photography of satellites and omniscient narration (Emma Thompson) and a bubbling electronic score. Yet, it’s very much grounded in the mundane, depicting human interaction as a morose game of chess, made all the more pathetic by our mounting pixel addiction. Large passages of the picture are told via text messaging, boxes constantly popping up onscreen, characters often typing something, thinking twice, and sending something else instead – a staggering visual representation of the addled way people think in 2014 and how technology has created as many barriers between us as it’s torn down.

In the absence of a traditional narrative, Reitman’s characters mostly bounce off one another, curtained off from the world, doing more damage than they know. Adam Sandler (“Grown Ups”) and Rosemarie DeWitt (“The Watch”) play the aforementioned couple in a loveless marriage, Ansel Elgort (“The Fault In Our Stars”) plays Tim, the former star footballer turned video game junkie, and Judy Greer co-stars as the catastrophically misguided mom who sees her daughter’s path to stardom through sexual exploitation. But these are merely a few of film’s players, all of whom exist in the same small town, occasionally crossing each other’s paths, in-person or otherwise.

Elgort is essentially the lead, making his blooming friendship with a similarly adrift teen, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever, “Short Term 12”), the heart of the piece. It’s also the film’s only throughline that suggests an upside to technology, with the duo’s easy companionship made possible by their secretive communication. But every hero requires a villain, and Jennifer Garner – as Brandy’s mousy, scheming, overprotective mother – serves nicely, even if she’s written without a hint of subtlety.

The intermittent genius of Reitman’s script – based on a book by Chad Kultgen – is in each character moving mountains to justify his or her actions – if not to observers, at least to themselves. Even when Sandler’s character stoops to using his son’s computer to look at porn, Reitman doesn’t waver. The act is played as much a part of the character’s day as showering or eating breakfast, and Reitman never gives reason to doubt his characters’ actions – even when we despise them.

The pic’s viscous sexuality serves as a stark reminder of the depravity that goes on behind closed doors in even the tidiest of American communities, something the filmmaker does without ever judging – or apologizing for – his characters. It’s a skillful balancing act that turns an inventive premise into something almost vital, underlining the power of a keystroke in a world where no one recognizes that power. It’s voyeuristic but never exploitative, endearing us to the most fractured of characters because we can’t help but see bits and pieces of ourselves in them.

The surplus of story strands ultimately bogs the piece down, keeping most of its mini-narratives from hitting as hard as they should. More problematically, a few of them seem to exist for shock value alone – see the aforementioned anorexia storyline – providing no meaningful resolution and adding little to the technological bent of the screenplay. But if Reitman’s aim was to push buttons, make us think, and give his cast a stage for some stellar performances, he’s succeeded wildly.

It’s hard to imagine how “Men, Women & Children” will age since it’s so firmly tethered to the here and now, but in 2014 it’s a stirring piece of cinema in which questions are far more important than answers. Often hard to watch, but even harder to look away.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 1, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriter: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Elena Kampouris, Olivia Crocicchia, Travis Tope, J.K. Simmons, Dennis Haysbert, Emma Thompson
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout – some involving teens, and for language)