Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reitman Delivers a Misfire With "Men, Women & Children"

Roy from The Office shows up for this one scene. Don't even think
he speaks. Very weird.
After the increasing success of his first three films (Thank You For Smoking, Juno and Up in the Air), Jason Reitman has gotten himself on to a bit of a cold streak. Young Adult scored with critics but bombed with audiences and Oscar voters, and then Labor Day mustered little support of any kind. The writer-director has tumbled even further from grace with Men, Women & Children, the biggest critical and commercial flop of his career.

The film, which employs an interconnected ensemble in an attempt to explore the alienating forces of technology, found its way onto its share of 2014 worst of lists, but it's not that bad. There are some good characters here, and the film circles a topic worthy of continued exploration, even in the wake of Spike Jonze's brilliant Her. However, the film's positives are outweighed by an overbearing, self-important approach that really has very little to add to the conversation of how technology is changing modern life.

The film focuses on five family units in a small Texas community. Here's the rundown:
  1. Chris (Travis Tope), a football player who has become so desensitized by internet porn that he can't get excited for real sex (this concept was handled with much more nuance and humor in Don Jon) and his unsatisfied parents (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt doing the best they can) who seek extramarital affairs via the internet.
  2. Cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), an aspiring starlet who posts inappropriate photos to a web site with the help of her misguided mom Joan (Judy Greer) in the hopes of jump starting an acting career. 
  3. Tim (Ansel Elgort), a football star who quits the team after his mom abandons him and his father Kent (Dean Norris, so damn good) for life with a new man across the country. Tim spends most of his time playing an online role playing game and openly discusses the insignificance of life in the context of our massive universe. 
  4. Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), an emo sort whose overprotective mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors her every move via regular social media reviews, GPS tracking and a whole slew of other intrusions. 
  5. Allison (Elena Kampouris), a cheerleader with an eating disorder who hooks up with the callous jock who teased her before she lost weight. 
Clearly, there's a lot going on, and that's before we talk about the story overlaps -- Tim and Brandy, Chris and Hannah, and Kent and Patricia are all paired off romantically. The only odd fit is Allison's story, which is bluntly drawn and entirely unconnected to the rest of the narrative. There's very little technological hook to this one (beyond a chat room of other users giving tips on how to avoid eating food), and it plays like a tacked on thread considering she's the only kid who doesn't have a prominently featured parent (J.K. Simmons is wasted as her father).

Overall, the film suffers as a message movie (all the technology connections are pretty much just window dressing) and works best as a community melodrama, but even then, it's extremely flawed (it's like a vastly less successful Little Children or The Ice Storm).

The problem is that the bulk of these characters are basically just representing different ideas, so they end up with almost no dimension. The exceptions to that rule are Tim, Brandy, Kent and Joan. There's a good movie here about a father and a son dealing with abandonment with the help of two romantic interests dealing with their own shit, but it's muted by all the other fluff filling up the bulk of the run time.

When Elgort, Dever, Greer, and Norris are onscreen, especially in combination, the film really shines. Otherwise, Men, Women & Children offers a bunch of junk-time for unengaged audience members to scroll through their phones. C