Ambition can be the enemy of precision. With its multiple storylines and subplots, there is no denying the overarching ambition of Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. What seems to be missing, however, is the attention to detail required to craft a rewarding and engaging film. The good ideas are undermined by ‘Young Adult’ clichés, and the interesting stories aren’t given enough time to flourish. The end result is a messy little film that doesn’t offer enough insight to warrant enduring the melancholy.
Opening with the humbling image of Earth as seen from the edge of the galaxy, Men, Women & Children immediately throws us into the gloomy void. Just as the ancient space mariner Voyager drifts through the cosmos, hoping to communicate its secrets to some alien culture, each of us yearns to escape our insular pod and form a meaningful bond with the outside world. The harm we cause ourselves and others in the service of forming these bonds is what lies at the heart of Reitman’s existential film.
Children wants to generate the propulsive force of Short Cuts and the gravitas of Magnolia, but its clumsy and often heavy-handed approach more closely resembles Paul Haggis’ Crash. Storylines weave and intersect, usually facilitated (or thwarted) by ubiquitous social media. An adult couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) drifts apart and seeks stimulation through internet hook-ups. A creepy (but well-meaning) mother (Judy Greer) sexualizes her spoiled, underage daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) to acquire the fame that eluded her. An outsider goth chick (Kaitlyn Dever) tries to evade the prying eyes of her security-obsessed mother (Jennifer Garner) long enough to fall in love with a mopey ex-jock (Ansel Elgort). One poor girl (Elena Kampouris) is even saddled with the dueling YA clichés of an eating disorder and a teen pregnancy. There’s also a kid who’s addicted to porn, Hank (Dean Norris) from Breaking Bad, and a snooty narrator (Emma Thompson) who provides the film’s only comedic respite. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on here.
Some of these threads actually contain an interesting narrative foundation. The relationship between Sandler and DeWitt, in particular, is infused with a quiet dignity that feels at odds with the hyper-urgency of the other storylines. If the other characters are hurtling into the endless vacuum of space, Sandler and DeWitt are the only characters looking wistfully back at Earth. Reitman (who co-wrote the script with Erin Cressida Wilson) has a much better feel for the simmering storm within his older characters than the white heat churning inside the teenagers. There, he’s forced to rely upon well-worn tropes that have nothing new to offer. Every time we delve into the harrowing precincts of high school life, the story comes to a crashing halt. Though far superior to his disastrous 2013 outing, Labor Day, Reitman still chooses to funnel the majority of Children through the least interesting characters.
Reitman gets solid performances from all his actors, but they get very little time to shine. t would be interesting, for instance, to see what Garner could accomplish with her insanely paranoid character; a mother who spends entire evenings vetting her daughter’s digital trace. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the true star of the film is social media. To some degree, every storyline focuses its human interaction through a digital filter. Reitman handles his visual representation of the digital realm extremely well, keeping the pace quick and the flourishes to a minimum. Sadly, anything important the filmmakers had to say about the perils and advantages of social media is lost in the endless crosscutting between storylines, many of which are either left dangling or resolved in a completely haphazard fashion. By not giving the actors an opportunity to breathe some life into these stories, the script feels all the more lackluster and unengaging.
While Men, Women & Children aims to lend insight into relationships in the digital age, it ultimately settles for being a depressing message film. Its short attention span might be symbolic of modern culture, but it also spells narrative death for a film that can’t find a consistent perspective. Reitman desperately needs to find his most interesting characters and stick with them. Everything else is just wasted ambition.
— J.R. Kinnard