Monday, October 20, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW Men, Women & Children
Is It The People Or The Technology? Or Both?

Adam Sandler as Don and Rosemarie DeWitt as Helen in Jason Reitman's drama "Men, Women & Children".

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, October 20, 2014

The overview (and sadly pathetic state) of planet Earth is sized up in the dry, almost sardonic narration of Emma Thompson in "Men, Women & Children", Jason Reitman's study of anthropology and technology in 21st century America.  Based on Chad Kultgen's book Mr. Reitman's film offers several portraits of Texas families challenged in a short-attention span world.
Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) have marital issues and their teenage son has his challenges with sex.  A single mother (Judy Greer) sells photos of her adolescent daughter to further her child's shot at reality TV fame.  A divorced man struggles to bond with his teenage son who misses his mother.  A prudish, totalitarian parent (Jennifer Garner) keeps tabs on her daughter that would be the envy of the CIA and FBI.  The Internet, phone texting, video games, social media and alienation are central themes binding these and other stories in "Men, Women & Children", a sometimes interesting and thought-provoking film but not a consistently good one. 

Some stories in "Men, Women & Children" work decently but not continuously as they illustrate contradictions and complexities within human beings.  The overall takeaway from the film's anthologies is, as in other films this year (including "Palo Alto"), that being an adult is as hard -- if not harder -- than being an adolescent in today's increasingly demanding world.

Mr. Reitman again directs adapted work as he has in almost every feature he's helmed.  Mr. Kultgen's book gives the director material he's more comfortable with cinematically after the disastrous "Labor Day" in January, though his choice of storytelling for this adaptation is distracting.  The film's story elements are strong enough to stand on their own but don't stand out enough due to the intrusive narration.  Mr. Reitman co-wrote the "Men" screenplay with Erin Cressida Wilson. 

Each of the film's episodes catalogue human beings struggling with sexual expression and seeking an outlet from their humdrum lives to release tensions and frustrations.  None of those in the film's Texas environs are able to communicate directly with each other.  The Internet is presented as a proxy for problem-solving of social anxieties and interaction difficulties.

What I found myself asking during and after watching "Men, Women & Children" was, is the Internet breaking up the nuclear family, or are we just using new ways to seek self-fulfillment?  The Internet is often an escape, a distraction, a substitute for connecting with the person in front of you.  Like the iPhone6 Plus, the Internet is the world's shiny (and relatively new) toy, an object of allure and seduction to facilitate avoidance, and a spicy, colorful, endless avenue of misadventure and isolation. 

People in real life as in "Men, Women & Children" hide behind their screens, don't say what they feel, and chase external things and instant gratification while missing the search for satisfaction within, be it spiritually, mentally or for the sake of self-improvement.  From the best of my memory no one writes by hand, or reads a tangible book in "Men, Women & Children".  When was the last time you wrote a sentence by hand?

Technology has always been here but its ever-changing refinement and advance seems designed in part to further blunt human interaction.  The term "Smartphone" seems ironic but is open to question: is a phone "smart" because it is sophisticated enough to be a barrier to human connection, or because it enables those who use it to become lazy and imbecilic?  Remote control does so to a degree.  One scene in Mr. Reitman's film suggests that we're a nation and world of zombies so hypnotized by our cell phones we can't even take our eyes off them as we walk, as one character shows.

Several early scenes in "Men, Women & Children" punctuate dependency and passivity, and the film itself wanes after an hour, taking an abrupt melodramatic turn in Act Three, notably via characters who don't deserve to come on as strong as they do.  The film's lone credible note is struck by Mr. Sandler, good here as Don.  His character wears a truth few of the others do. 

Ms. Thompson's narration in "Men, Women & Children" shares the cadence and pacing of Leon Vitali's narration in Todd Field's 2006 film "Little Children".  Both films are about similar things: escape, betrayal, secrecy, social mores and judgment, though the community in Mr. Field's film is more close-knit and dysfunctional.  In contrast the Oscar-winning actress' narration in Mr. Reitman's film is superfluous, even strangely elitist, though it likely didn't intend to be.  And while "Men, Women & Children" tackles topics like bullying and bulimia it perniciously features two oversimplified black characters who perpetuate both sides of a film stereotype coin: one is a "perfect" counselor.  The other is a "secret lover".  Both are on screen for a grand total of two minutes -- combined.

If nothing else "Men, Women & Children" is a conversation starter around the issues of privacy, protection, parenting and prudence but there isn't enough meat on the script's bones to shed deeper light on the characters or issues it presents.  The Internet is the film's biggest character, and, interestingly enough, gives "Men, Women & Children" its cover for otherwise uninteresting human characters.  Perhaps that cover is by design.  Nonetheless "Happiness", Todd Solondz's fine and unnerving film, which the movie poster of Mr. Reitman's latest evokes to a degree, powerfully shattered and explored similar issues far better than does Mr. Reitman here.  The latter is a very capable director -- when he's in the mood to be.

Also with: Dean Norris, Olivia Crocicchia, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, Elena Kampouris, Travis Tope, Dennis Haysbert, J.K. Simmons, Jason Douglas, Phil LaMarr.

"Men, Women & Children" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout -- some involving teens, and for language.  Its running time is one hour and 59 minutes.

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