Movie Review: Men, Women & Children (2014)- Jason Reitman’s Latest Film is a Misguided and Overly Dramatic Reflection on the Ills of Modern Day Technology

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More often than not the intelligentsia class of the human race likes to espouse their moral superiority by honing in on the negatives of common societal tools blaming the tools themselves rather than the people who are using them. These people are what C.S. Lewis called moral busybodies who want to show us a better path through critical idealism rather than focusing on what makes tools like the internet so amazing. Director Jason Reitman of Up in the Air and Juno fame has taken on this high horse approach in his latest film Men, Women & Children, which has resulted in a rather misguided and uneven human portrait of technological use that feels more like a ridiculous after-school special from the 1950s than a serious and reflective piece of cinema. The film has a plethora of characters and perspectives much like the Paul Haggis Oscar-winner Crash and it could take up the description of the Crash of the internet struggle in all of its similar self-aware, blunt, and distraught structure if an equally melodramatic film entitled Disconnect hadn’t already done it in 2013 (and is only slightly better than Reitman’s soapbox take). Reitman is known for trying to find some semblance of humanity and grey ethical pondering in all of his films from the morally bending whims of his protagonist Nick Naylor in Thank You for Smoking to the very real questions and issues relating to teen pregnancy in Juno making him a well-intentioned filmmaker with character on the forefront. However, as well-intentioned and ambitious as Men, Women & Children might be there is a void of actual connection to the scenarios, characters, and issues on the screen because it lacks a genuine understanding about the complexity of human emotions, the real balance of modern technology, and possesses a desperate attitude to be a self-aggrandizing moral busybody who is about as annoying as a commenter claiming “First!” on a YouTube video. Because Men, Women & Children comes off as such a tone-deaf rant against the alienation of the internet instead of considering all of its complexities as a modern tool it shows us that Reitman might not be the insightful filmmaker as we once perceived as he enters slowly into the realm of Cameron Crowe hackery that befalls many well-intentioned yet lacking filmmakers.

Reitman’s Men, Women & Children opens up with the disembodied narration of Emma Thompson over images of the Voyager by NASA that was launched to attempt to communicate with Alien life, which sets the film’s overbearing and utterly pretentious tone. Ironically this ethereal contemplation on how the need for communication is instinctually human comes off as completely Alien in this context as the characters, situations, and issues seem overdramatized from actual predicaments and disconnected from any real human interactions familiar to us on this planet. The script was written by Reitman and co-writer Erin Cressida-Wilson (adapted from the novel by Chad Kultgen) and unfortunately in its efforts to have an up to date critical soapbox feel it reads like a parental screed against the internet much like the alarmist hysteria of Reefer Madness (though that film has the excuse of being made in 1936). Set in the outskirts of Austin, Texas Men, Women & Children follows various individuals, families, students, and parents in their struggle to find connection with everyone around them in this alienating digital age of constant stimulation of screens, video games, and pornography. A bored married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) seek out affair options in escort services and website setups as their son (Travis Tope) can’t have real sex with his cheerleader girlfriend (Olivia Crocicchia) who has a mother (Judy Greer) that maintains a borderline perverted site of her daughters acting ambitions who is dating a newly divorced father (Dean Norris) of a depressed kid (Ansel Elgort) who plays video games who also finds a connection with an equally lonely girl (Kaitlyn Dever) whose every move on the internet is monitored by her overbearing and overprotective mother (Jennifer Garner). It’s just an overly complicated and messy script that might have all the elements they wanted to address but never is able to truly focus on any of the complicated societal ills with real human experience needed to make each story relevant in dramatic impact.

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The complexity of the script shows an earnest and ambitious intention to genuinely try to depict some truly haunting aspects of living in the modern digital age where the avenues of communication are so wide yet loneliness seems to be increasing. Yet everything in the film from pornography on the internet to affair websites to violent online video games is handled with such a laughable sense of surprise that these dark crevices of the internet actually exist. This isn’t to say that everything in Reitman’s technological portrait doesn’t work though be sure that many storylines, including the anorexic cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) or the football player who can’t get aroused without dominatrix porn, distract from the overall purpose that act as odd deviations rather than credible additions. The most appealing side story in this entire mess of a film is a nascent geeky-romance between Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) and recovering jock Tim (Ansel Elgort) who find connection in each other’s isolation despite the overarching watch of Brandy’s mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) who serves as the film’s central extreme catalyst of how using technology as a security tool can have drastic consequences. Reitman’s film could have worked if the pretentious attitude and relentless finger wagging weren’t so predominant throughout and if it had showed us that technology has actually changed our lives when in actuality the issues have always remained the same while the avenues for which they begin are sometimes different. In retrospect most of the storylines have little or nothing to do with internet culture which actually undermines the entire reason for taking on such a laborious and complex human portrait in the attempt to criticize our modern alienation from the convenience and overstimulation of technology. This is one of those films that seeks to amplify their concerns capitalizing on the moment instead of allowing the subject matter and criticism that has already been explored in better ways even recently such as the connection to technology in Spike Jonze’s Her or quirky youthful love in Richard Ayoude’s Submarine.

Because the structure of the film is a complete mess and the soapbox criticism takes the place of exploring genuine characters most of the talented cast is wasted on this sluggish and misguided supposed film of the age. However, good actors can make something palpable within something that seems a bit too self-aware with its blunt messaging which allows some moments in Reitman’s film to shine with actual character and humanity. Most notably the romance between Brandy and Tim is given a charming hint of believable life mostly due to Kaitlyn Dever’s talent in exploring a controlled sense of teenage individuality and vulnerability that she’s done so often and so well in other films such as Short Term 12 and The Spectacular Now. She plays off of the quiet atmosphere that Ansel Elgort gives Tim who explores the repercussions of losing friends due to an identity rather than actual connection of interest and personality. Beyond this refreshing existence of humanity in Men, Women & Children’s callous and overdramatic social criticism there are some minor performances that shine like the damaged newly single father Kent played the remarkable Dean Norris and the always type casted but always wonderful Judy Greer. However, most of the talent gets lost in the material and the pretentious messaging, including Rosemarie DeWitt who always ventures into emotional territory with her characters but her story with Adam Sandler as a married couple with a stale love life ends with such a chastising commercial tone that it doesn’t connect with any dramatic impact. It’s safe to say that Men, Women & Children doesn’t enter the realm of the insufferable mostly because the actors have a sense of control unlike the material, the criticism, or the issues presented in the script.

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As far as Reitman’s career goes Men, Women & Children is an undeniable strange fit because it doesn’t possess the promise or the sarcastic wit that his previous films possessed either in the humorous Thank You For Smoking, the generation defining Juno, or the economic melancholy reflection in Up in the Air. While most of these films could very well be described as overrated, especially in the aspects of being Academy Award darlings, there’s no doubt that they are films that should be experienced at some point in your life due to Reitman’s sensible and humane approach to characters and the situations that define them. That sensibility is nonexistent here in Men, Women & Children as the entire film unfolds like a naïve amalgamation of a less than humorous John Hughes film and a less perceptive version of Larry Clarke’s Kids that only seems to be concerned with warning us about our impeding technological social doom rather than reflecting on the issues with grace, humility, and genuine concern. Instead Reitman has created a soapbox film that replaces sensible reflection with melodramatic hysteria that doesn’t translate effectively to relate to our most human of qualities. It seems Reitman has begun a trajectory into the cinematic obscure with the likes of Labor Day and Men, Women & Children as he seems to be losing that delicate touch where he blends literary-minded indie film with mainstream likeability of which his latest two films have neither.

Grade: C-

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One Response to “Movie Review: Men, Women & Children (2014)- Jason Reitman’s Latest Film is a Misguided and Overly Dramatic Reflection on the Ills of Modern Day Technology”
  1. Cale Morsen says:

    This is a really thoughtful, in-depth review. Yeah, when I heard about the premise and overall story, I started getting all sorts of red flags. There’s this really masochistic adherence to Ludditic philosophy concerning technology that seems so regressive and unproductive. Generally, movies like this start out with the premise that “technology bad” and then seem to cherry pick emotionally visceral examples of worst-case scenarios without taking a balanced, nuanced approach. As you aptly pointed out, there seems to be no distinction made between technology as a tool and the potential applications and consequences–both good and bad–of its application. Unfortunately, this seems to be the latest example of this weird anti-technological undercurrent in modern media.

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