O, Jason Reitman, where art thou? Once upon a time you were the most promising new director in the business, what with your three first films being Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), and Up in the Air (2009), which are all insightful character studies about people who aren’t often given center stage. Then Young Adult (2011) happened, which was a bit cynical but still unique, and sufficiently in keeping with the skills Reitman exhibited in his first three features. Labor Day (2013), though…well, I think my review outlines my grievances, but the short version is it’s so melodramatically told and sentimentally shot that it feels like a different director entirely.
Men, Women, & Children (2014), though, is worse in its own special ways, most of which make you wonder if Reitman has just forgotten what makes his earlier films so good, or if he’s always been an arrogant, shallow director who just happened be self-righteous in ways that were more palatable when played by the likes of Aaron Eckhart, Ellen Page, and sweet, beautiful George Clooney. Men, Women, & Children never manages to get the human insight achieved by Reitman before the 2010s began and crippled his filmography. Worse yet, because this film is an ensemble piece, the only “character” Reitman has time to develop is his thesis, relegating the people to two-dimensional thought experiments.
Reitman demonstrates his thesis in the first few minutes of the movie: we see a satellite travel through space—some shots capable of producing genuine awe—and Emma Thompson narrates that it was set up by Carl Sagan to send music and beautiful sounds of Earth into space in the hope of presenting our planet to extraterrestrials. The focus is on human achievement, the warmth of human love and creativity; one of the recordings is the sound of two people kissing. Then, the movie cuts to middle-aged dad Don Truby (Adam Sandler), who is trying to find some porn sites on his broken computer. He can’t use his imagination, Emma Thompson notes, so he uses the PC of his 15 year old son. The contrast emphasizes that technology has sent our greatest qualities into the universe, but has made us empty hedonistic shells who can’t even dream up a pleasing sexual fantasy. Technology both captures our greatest achievement, and robs us of our humanity.
The point is elaborated for another 1 hour and 50 minutes, interweaving stories that provide “evidence” as subtly as the characters of Reefer Madness show us how dangerous that darn marijuana is. The internet becomes so evil that you can imagine cartoon elderly folks yelling, “Evil! Eviiiiil!” at it. There are video games, and porn sites, and ways to hire an escort, and…and…people saying mean things! You might recognize this as exactly the kind of thing argued by that kid who won’t shut up about Carl Sagan and how jazz is “music for intellectuals.” And, well, that’s because Men, Women, & Children is the film version of that kid. Within five minutes, it’s already pontificating about Sagan, jazz, space, and how the internet has made us all brainless sheeple.
Really, how many of you haven’t read think-pieces on how the internet is ruining everything? Who thinks this is still an interesting point to make? Worse yet, each story line reads like a letter in Reader’s Digest written by “Concerned Parent, California.” A boy spends too much time playing an addictive MMORPG, instead of playing football, which is better because…reasons. A girl has an eating disorder and has sex for the first time with a jerk (these things apparently didn’t happen before the internet). A husband and wife can’t communicate anymore and look to cheat on each other (this also apparently didn’t happen before the internet). Another girl wants to be famous so bad that she’s basically a child porn star while claiming to be a model. And of course, one kid is into really kinky stuff, which means he can’t have a normal sex life.
That last one bothers me the most, actually. You know how he got so dysfunctional (even though his interests are totally healthy)? He saw a particularly nasty porn video, and the narrator points out that “[he] may have found this video unusual, had it not already been viewed by three million people.” The mob speaks! You must like being tied up, which means you can never have a healthy sex life! Remember, those of you into BDSM, you’re all bad people, and the internet has made you evil. Finding a partner who wants to perform these consensual acts with you gets away from good ol’ fashion marriage where people only perform the missionary position.
Men, Women, & Children wants to be modern and relevant, but it’s just a reactionary political think-piece that is already dated. The characters aren’t believable, because they have to represent problems, and the problems they represent are so clearly absurd that the characters are stereotypes and caricatures. No one can be human because they have to be representatives of demonstrably incorrect moral panics, unlike the protagonists of Thank You for Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air. While the end of the film does lead to some compelling places, the situations are deviated from unreasonable scenarios with unbelievable characters, and therefore feel cheap rather than poignant.
The best representative of this is Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner), who is a mother that monitors every word of her daughter’s online interactions. She’s so humorless and dramatic that she would probably read A Modest Proposal and be offended because she thinks it actually wants us to eat babies. SPOILERS She discovers that her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), has a secret Tumblr—the one truly interesting character moment, one that shows how people need a private life, an ability to explore identity—and pretends to be Brandy while talking to her secret boyfriend, Tim (Ansel Elgort). She tells Tim that he’s annoying and never wants to talk to him, which pushes him over the edge to attempt suicide. Her anti-internet crusade is not only absurd, but it actually destroys a person who needs human contact. I was a teenager who felt that desperation for human contact at one point, so this scene resonated with me. END SPOILERS
But while this could be a valuable counter to the rest of the movie, the fact that Reitman spends most of the film justifying her concerns (if not her severity) underwrites it entirely. The audience is meant to laugh at her, yet the ridiculous points she makes are proven right by the other stories in the film, revealing the extent of Reitman’s complete lack of self-awareness. He is Patricia, yet he makes her the villain in order to make himself seem more sane by comparison.
Men, Women, & Children is a stupid film, and I do not use that word lightly. Its characters have vestiges of humanity (largely thanks to the actors, who mostly sell the vapid material), but they are used to make points that don’t even line up with reality. This movie is the cinematic embodiment of moral panic, and the panic could be abated by five minutes of research—although that would involve using…*gasp*…the internet. Do yourself a favor, and instead of watching this movie, think for five minutes about how much better you are than all those darn millennials who are always on their iPhones, and you’ll have saved yourself 1 hour and 50 minutes. Now, spend that remaining time going about your day and not being a self-righteous asshole, and you’ll already have contributed more to society than Men, Women, & Children.