Men, Women & Children is a hateful film. This does not mean it’s an easy film to hate (though it is thoroughly hateable); it means the film itself is full of hate. This wannabe crusade against the evils of the Internet and social media is so apoplectic in its message that it tars every one of its characters with the same brush, portraying them as blinded idiots led into a digital Sodom and Gomorrah by that great tool of the Devil, Facebook. In years to come, audiences will look back on Jason Reitman’s film and laugh. With its blend of self-righteousness and tone-deaf storytelling, Men, Women and Children is little more than the Reefer Madness of our times.
The inflated air of grandiosity that exists where this film’s brain should be looms into view in the opening scene, with the Voyager spacecraft drifting into space. This beautiful shot is compounded with the plummily reassuring narration of Emma Thompson to create potential. As she explains the cultural booty stored upon the brave little satellite, drifting past Jupiter, an expectation is set. There may be some thematic heft to this thing. This little Internet commentary seems to be aiming high. Then, from the depths of space, we cut to a teenage boy in his bedroom browsing PornHub, and we’re down to Earth with a sickening thud. The boy in question is Chris (Travis Tope), and his fondness for the acting of Tori Black will prove to be his downfall. Every character is doomed to suffer in Men, Women & Children, with no compassion forthcoming from or for any of them, and no explanations beyond a Mr. Mackey-esque “the Internet’s bad, mm’kay?”
One bad film on a director’s CV is a blip on the radar, but two in a row is a genuine cause for concern. Reitman hasn’t made anything truly mind-blowing to this point (the likes of Juno and Thank You For Smoking are sardonic slices of fun), but this slump would be enough to kill some careers. Last year’s Labor Day was a queasily slushy attempt at feelgoodness that felt about as fresh as month-old peach pie. Now, Reitman torpedoes whatever goodwill could possibly remain with a sanctimonious diatribe against digital relationships, where subtlety takes a holiday andthe myriad conversations had via text and online messenger are displayed onscreen above everyone’s heads. The sanctimonious tagline for Men, Women & Children reads “Discover how little you know about the people you know”; if Reitman thinks the idea that people’s secrets render them essentially unknowable is at all original, then his film is about as relevant as Windows 3.1.
Men, Women and Children features a fine ensemble cast, but the film itself is so far removed from the works of Altman or P.T. Anderson that to apply the term ‘ensemble piece’ to it would be to do that term a disservice. The great actors populating this thing are not afforded the luxury of characters. Instead, they are moralistic cyphers, representing one of the evils that the Internet gives us. No matter how well-meaning the ‘character’, everyone here is spiteful on one level or another. Every one makes a dumb decision or represents a viewpoint so extreme that it’s impossible to like or care for them. Take Patrica (Jennifer Garner), a suburban yummy mummy whose obsession with tracking her teenage daughter Brandy’s (Kaitlyn Dever) online activity leads her to confiscating her mobile phone and using a tracker to locate her. Who actually does this? No-one, we hope. It’s just the tip of the iceberg of unbelievability that is this film.
Brandy has just started dating Tim (Ansel Elgort), who is having online problems of his own. His addiction to RPGs has led to him quitting the school football team. Besides the fact that Elgort looks like a breeze could blow him over, let alone an opposing quarterback, this storyline just cannot be taken seriously. Manufactured emotion fills the screen, with Tim reeling from his mother walking out on him and his father (Dean Norris), while Pop has no clue how to relate to Tim except via hardman sports talk. Norris does his best with a thankless hardnut role, but if we don’t care about Tim’s online problems, and we can’t relate to his conflict with his father, then how can we be expected to relate to this? Reitman shoots all this with a lingering, nosy camera to squeeze ever last tear and drop of exasperation from his actors with which to shove his morals down audience throats.
Men, Women & Children is full of indignant ire, but it has absolutely no clue how to turn that ire into a believeable story, so it relies on hollow emotions and hot button topics to justify itself. Each ‘character’ and their online problem is just a click away from another ‘character’ and their problems. Chris’ parents Don (Adam Sandler, purposefully unfunny for once) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are separately contemplating adultery, with the help of (shock horror) online dating and escort services. Meanwhile, little waif Allison (Elena Kampouris) is dealing with anorexia and pressure to lose her virginity, all fuelled by blogs, and single mom Donna (Judy Greer) is helping her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) foster an acting career with a sexy online persona. The lesson is: your online life is a primrose path to ruin and despair. Then, once the ‘characters’ have made their mistakes, Reitman’s camera slowly pulls back whilst maintaining a sickeningly judgemental stare. All the while, everyone’s online interactions and messages appear onscreen to allow the audience more chances to look down on them. It’s the cinematic equivalent of rubbing a dog’s nose in excrement to ensure it’s housebroken; in the end, a talented and willing cast are the ones left smelling of shit. They’re left adrift like the lonely Voyager satellite, whose lofty ambitions are never troubled by Men, Women & Children. Should Reitman’s career falter after this and his noxious previous outing, perhaps he could become a clergyman; preaching seems to be his true métier.