I wanted to like Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. I’m in sympathy with its vaguely Luddite views on the Internet, social media and the ubiquity of texting. I think its intentions are honorable. I think there are some good moments in the film. There are certainly good ideas. Unfortunately, the film itself is something of a mess. There are too many characters and too many stories — some of which could have easily been cut. The whole story of the anorexic girl (Elena Kampouris) adds nothing to the film — other than characters it doesn’t need — and is just a slab of soap with only the most tenuous connection to the film’s themes.
There’s also too much melodrama, too much angst, too much self-seriousness — and a deadly absence of humor (at least, the conscious kind). That a filmmaker with Reitman’s credentials would have made this seems incredible. Maybe if I’d seen his much reviled Labor Day from earlier this year, I’d have been less startled. As it is, I’m reduced to calling it a nice try, pointing out that Adam Sandler isn’t embarrassing, and that while both Dennis Haysbert and J.K. Simmons are in it, neither one tries to sell us insurance. But then, someone might have cautioned Reitman that having Emma Thompson narrate your movie won’t turn it into Stranger Than Fiction (2006), but it will make you think about how much better that film was.
At the same time, I’m more than a little alarmed by attacks on the film by critics who seem threatened by the idea that anyone would criticize our collective addiction to social media. (Alternatively, perhaps they’re afraid they’ll be called fuddy-duddies for conceding Reitman has a point.) The problem is the movie invites criticism with its ham-handed, often tone deaf approach and its rudimentary grasp of social media. I understand that we’re not supposed to like the control obsessed, overprotective mother played by Jennifer Garner — and I would have understood this without Garner playing her like Piper Laurie in Carrie. She is the most extreme example of the movie’s off-key tone, but the whole movie is trapped in a world of not dissimilar extremes. It dotes on worst-case scenarios — like the mom (Judy Greer) who feeds her daughter’s (Olivia Crocicchia) pursuit of fame by curating an inappropriate website of the girl in come-hither lingerie. Of course, the movie — being a mainstream creation — is hampered by its inability to illustrate such things as online porn. The film’s idea of porn is full-on fuddy-duddyism — to the point that this stuff probably wouldn’t shock your granny, assuming she has watched network TV after 10 p.m. recently.
So much of what doesn’t work, however, comes down to the film being overstuffed. Compare it to the little-seen 2013 film Disconnect. It addressed the same issues and traded in melodrama, but it was smarter about it — and one of the ways it was smarter lay in it having three stories. Reitman’s film has eight. As a result, very little is more than sketched in. The best stories — the romance between Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) and a football hero (Ansel Elgort) turned into a rather gloomy introvert, an incipient romance between Elgort’s father (Dean Norris) and the Judy Greer character, the marriage of Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt — all would have benefited from more development. (The reason I’ve avoided character names is that everything is so watered down that the actors exist more than the characters.) No amount of clever animated onscreen “thought bubbles” of online chatting (I guess it’s like O’Neill’s Strange Interlude for the barely literate) makes up for iffy characterization.
Still, Men, Women & Children isn’t without its points. Yes, the whole business of electronic communications deadening us to actual human interaction is ripe for exploration. There probably is a great film to be made on the topic. This just isn’t it. Too much of what happens — like kids rushing into losing their virginity for its own sake — doesn’t require the Internet. It’s stuff that’s been around for some considerable time now. Even so, there are strong moments in the film. The whole business of people expecting other people to be so plugged into the Internet or their phones that anything that doesn’t receive an automatic response is cause for worry is nicely conveyed. There are good scenes between the three couples worthy of being called couples. There just aren’t enough of them to really float the movie. Rated R for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout — some involving teens — and for language.