Men, Women & Children, an existential hand-wringing masquerading as an ensemble drama, suggests it’s going to have some Deep Thoughts about The Way We Live Now
Director Jason Reitman, overseeing a sprawling cast of characters, each wrestling with how technology impacts their lives, even makes a few salient points — mostly as it relates to the concept of readily available smut poisoning human intimacy — but ultimately overreaches, settling for breadth, when depth would have created a more profound experience.
Still, the moments when Men, Women & Children transcends its limitations and offers a raw-nerved portrait of the Internet-infected suburbs are powerful — nearly enough to forgive the film’s diffuse focus and flab.
The film, adapted by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson from Chad Kultgen’s 2011 novel of the same name, runs along parallel tracks, overseen by a drolly omniscient narrator (Emma Thompson) and following teenagers along with their parents in Austin (where the movie was filmed).
The kids at the fictional East Vista High, are dealing with the usual high school pressures, as well as challenges outside the classroom — cheerleader Allison (Olivia Crocicchia) poses for provocative photos snapped by her fame-hungry mother Joan (Judy Greer), while Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) deals with her overbearing, overprotective mom Patricia (Jennifer Garner) and Allison (Elena Kampouris) is starving herself thin — albeit in the 21st century, when texts, Tumblrs and potential digital shame are ubiquitous.
Added to this are Tim (Ansel Elgort), a star football player who has walked away from the team, and Chris (Travis Tope), who discovers an appetite for S&M, as well as Tim’s father Kent (Dean Norris), and Chris’s parents, Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), the latter pair wrestling with dissipated marital passion and potential infidelity.
It’s a lot to juggle, and Reitman breezily cuts between the many narrative strands, even as there are some characters you yearn to spend more time with. Tim’s poignant story feels rushed by the time its dramatic climax arrives, even as Allison’s less interesting tale ends in predictable fashion. A longer film focused on fewer characters would have yielded much more satisfying results.
Another problem with so much ground to cover is that Reitman begins to make the same point over and over again — the Internet, neatly personified here by an endless series of text bubbles and on-screen graphics, has the potential to strip us of our humanity — and the impact is lessened.
The cast is superb, particularly Elgort, Dever and Greer, who find the relatable in even the most grotesque moments. Sandler, in a rare noncomedic role, acquits himself well, and his final scene with DeWitt crackles nicely.
Men, Women & Children simultaneously wonders “Does anything really matter?” even as it forcefully suggests that, yes, retaining our humanity is necessary. In other words, Reitman and his collaborators feel while the human race is quite plugged in, it’s not nearly connected enough.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN
* * * (out of five)
Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt
Rating: R (strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout -- some involving teens, and strong language)
Running time: 119 min.