Men, Women & Children (2014)

14 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I won’t deny that our dependence on modern technology is a social problem. And to be fair, Jason Reitman’s ensemble drama “Men, Women & Children” poses an interesting question—are we so lonely in the world that we spend more time with our computers and our phones than anything (or anyone) else? This is a film that wants to be (“be,” not “make”) a profound statement on how we all, as a society, rely on social media, not to mention online gaming and pornography. Unfortunately, what should be a deep, moving, effective portrait about where we are now is reduced to a heavy-handed, overbearing, even laughable-at-times mess of a film that tries to say more than it actually is. This film is about as informative a social commentary as “Reefer Madness.”

The film, based on a novel by Chad Kulgen, is an ensemble piece, featuring many talented actors portraying the film’s many central focuses: a group of high school students and their parents who have their own tales being told here, each of them related to how technology is running his or her life. Adam Sandler is effectively low-key as Donny, a family man who is hardly satisfied with his marriage to his wife, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), anymore, and seeks excitement from his son’s pornography. Meanwhile, Helen has a similar problem, unbeknownst to him, and their son, Chris (Travis Tope), can’t get aroused by any human sexual contact due to watching so much porn. Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a popular cheerleader with her own website full of “modeling” photos, finds this out as she makes her advance toward him but makes up a lie to her classmates. Who’s running Hannah’s website, you may ask? It’s her mother (Judy Greer), who hopes that it will help give her daughter a career in modeling or acting. (It’s indicated that she herself took her shot at one way back when.) Hannah’s friend, Allison (Elena Kampouris), wants to be thin and gets advice from a website about anorexics; of course, this causes her to starve herself.

The campus football star, Tim (Ansel Elgort), quits the team after his mother abandoned him and his father, Kent (Dean Norris), and finds himself questioning life and existence, as well as playing an online game nonstop. He also starts a nice relationship with a wallflower girl, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who has a secret social-media account to keep her outrageously overprotective mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who keeps track of her daughter’s texts, calls, Facebook account, everything. Oh, and she also leads a discussion group where she tries to warn the parents of the neighborhood about the “evils” of online media.

While all these stories are taking place, they’re being observed by an omnipresent narrator (voiced by Emma Thompson), who I guess is supposed to be the voice of Voyager (which we cut to in space every now and then), observing with pity how mankind is becoming worse. And right there is the biggest problem of the film. The execution at work is too condescending, too arrogant, and too messy that it doesn’t leave a tragic impact as much as a dull impression. The way all of these issues are being addressed is just too much to take in, let alone take seriously. And there are far too many callbacks to Carl Segan’s “Pale Blue Dot” that the point is far gone out the window. I’m not moved; I’m just bored. And don’t even get me started on the 9/11 references.

The actors do what they can with what they have, but another problem with the film is that just about everyone is neither appealing nor interesting. And what’s worse is, by the end, their actions are both insufferable and questionable. Near the end, Patricia, who has found out about her daughter’s secret Tumblr account she uses to communicate with Tim, goes so far as to shoot Tim down (not letting him know who she really is), causing Tim to do something that is supposed to be sad and tragic but is instead annoyingly blasé. Lucky for me, I gave up around the point when Helen sees a prostitute midway through.

I really wish director Jason Reitman, who made himself a name with such effective satires as “Thank You For Smoking,” “Juno,” and “Up in the Air,” went sharper with this material and mocked the subject material in a ironic way rather than try to shock and awe us with the dangers of a modern problem. As is, I found “Men, Women & Children” to be awful and, even worse, boring. The sooner this talented director and this large talented cast can move on from this, the better.

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