Back in 2004, Paul Haggis’ Crash earned a Best Picture Oscar by interweaving the stories of several Los Angeles residents and detailing the racial and social tensions prevalent in their lives. Director Jason Reitman tackles the information age in similar style with this month’s Men, Women & Children, which clearly attempts to communicate the dangers of life in such a connected world. Unfortunately for us viewers, the Labor Day director’s approach is about as ungainly and misguided as they come. Somehow, Reitman turns what should have been an insightful look at modern culture into a shrill, irritating exploitation piece of near-Reefer Madness proportions.
It’s honestly rare to see a movie as ambitiously envisioned and horrifically executed. In the past, Reitman has delivered some truly delightful and incisive works like Juno and Up in the Air, which makes it all the more painful to bear witness to Men, Women & Children. Where the film should entertain, it bores. Where it should stimulate discussion, it lectures. And where it should enlighten, it spews nauseating platitudes.
High on Men, Women & Children’s long list of miscalculations is recurring narration by Emma Thompson (credited simply as “Narrator”). Accompanying images of a satellite moving slowly through space, the pretentious voice-overs are evidently intended to make the assorted struggles of the characters seem more momentous than they actually are. Unfortunately, in practice, all they do is distance viewers from the stories unfolding on screen.
As Reitman’s camera repeatedly shifts focus over the course of Men, Women & Children, we meet a variety of characters. Among them are a video game addict (Ansel Elgort) unable to communicate with his football-loving father (Dean Norris), a dirty-minded schlub (Adam Sandler) unhappily married to a restless housewife (Rosemarie DeWitt), a teen (Kaitlyn Dever) chafing under her mother’s (Jennifer Garner) invasive cyber security checks, and a fragile young cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) struggling with an eating disorder.
A bevy of hot-button topics, from infidelity to sexting to anorexia, all make appearances in the film, though it’s hard to shake the sense that Reitman is just robotically going down a checklist, presenting each issue for just long enough to wag his finger before tossing it to one side and moving on.
That’s not to say that all the stories are total failures. Elgort and Dever both give natural and engaging performances as teens whose romance is threatened by controlling, out-of-the-loop parents. Elsewhere, Kampouris imbues her fragile cheerleader with quiet sensitivity, though her role (like many others) is eventually given short shrift. And Sandler, of all people, gives a nuanced, if subdued performance, despite his character’s deeply unsympathetic arc.
The biggest problem is Men, Women & Children’s multiple-narrative structure. Put simply, there are far too men, women and children running through Reitman’s film. Trying to keep up with all their stories winds the filmmaker so completely that he can barely manage to provide half-sketched conclusions to each, never mind articulate any deeper meaning.
Consequently, the only thoughts Reitman provokes are of the most superficial, alarmist variety (“I want to give you a pamphlet on the dangers of selfies,” Garner’s high-strung, borderline-psychotic dragon mom announces at one point). Out of all the criticisms one could level at Men, Women & Children, perhaps the most surprising is how shallow, obvious and ultimately pointless Reitman’s observations really are.
What Reitman doesn’t seem to have considered is that, in order to make a movie that says something about modern society, one needs to first have something to say. For all its fist-shaking and sermonizing, there’s only one question Men, Women & Children actually raises, and it’s this – how did a filmmaker usually skilled at capturing the cultural zeitgeist get our time’s most central evolution so hopelessly wrong?