After the disappointment that was Labor Day, Director Jason Reitman is back with a movie that is a little more in his wheelhouse, Men, Women & Children. However, while the results are better, he still hasn’t regained his top form.
Based on the novel of the same name by author Chad Kultgen, the film follows several different characters that are loosely connected as they traverse the modern world we live in today with a focus on technology and how it affects our lives. The Truby family features father Don (Adam Sandler) and mother Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), who are experiencing a sexual lull, which leads each of them to seek out release elsewhere. Meanwhile, their son, Chris (Travis Tope) has watched so much online pornography, he can’t achieve an erection without viewing some really kinky, deviant stuff. It’s so bad that he has a hard time—no pun intended—getting it up for his new girlfriend, Hanna (Olivia Crocicchia), who has her own modeling website complete with risqué photos. Oh, did I mention that the photographer for the site is her mother, Donna (Judy Greer)? Meanwhile, star football player Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort) has quit the team in the wake of his mother walking out on him and his father, Kent (Dean Norris). Instead, Tim has devoted his time to playing an online fantasy role playing game in the vein of League of Legends. He has also carved out time to pursue a loner at school, Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), whose mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), tracks her every online movement to the point that she follows the GPS signal from her phone. While all that is going on, cheerleader Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris) peruses websites that support and enable her anorexia, while she pines for classmate Brandon (Will Peltz).
That’s a lot to take in and when the film clocks in at a minute under two hours, all the stories cannot receive the attention they need. Look at a film like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, which is a similar floating narrative. That running time is over three hours and you feel satisfied that you’ve gotten everything out of the story. Also, Men, Women & Children is very heavy-handed in its delivery in places, so it elicits eye-rolls instead of the emotion it’s looking for. The narrative also went to some cliché places that disappointed me. At first, when Tim quits football and takes up video games, his father seems like he just wants to understand the game so he can communicate with his son again. Eventually, though, he resorts to the tried and true, “You’re playing football and you’re going to like it.” I half-expected Tim to respond with, “I don’t want your life!” With a movie that’s exploring modern day problems, it was disappointing to see it flip back to tried and true reactions. You could say that that’s human nature, but it would have been refreshing to see Kent be more enlightened than he comes off as. For a movie that’s supposed to be edgy, Men, Women & Children plays it safe in a lot of areas.
The cast is fantastic, though. Sandler shows that he is indeed better than the crap he churns out of his Happy Madison production studio and that maybe he should take more opportunities to explore different roles. Elgort and Dever are a great onscreen pair and Norris, aside from the predictability of the script, delivers a good performance. The other kids are all good too, but it’s Jennifer Garner who turns in a performance that will win her accolades for “Villain of the Year.” Her character is so diabolical and misguided it’s frightening. Emma Thompson is also good in her role as the film’s narrator.
Ultimately, Men, Women & Children is an often funny and engaging film that just happens to club you over the head with its themes and self-importance as it goes on. It’s an interesting story, but in the end, not very satisfying. It’s not a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely could have been better. The good news is that it’s a step in the right direction for Reitman to get back on track.