8 December 2014

Review: Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, USA, 2014)

C-

Men, Women & Children 
2014, 119mins, 15
Director: Jason Reitman 
Writer (s): Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson 
Cast includes: Ansel Elgort, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer
UK Release Date: 5th December 2014

 Last year Henry Alex-Rubin directed the excitable ensemble drama “Disconnect”, an ambitious attempt to explore social minutia through a wired prism. Despite a familiar cast (Jason Bateman, Hope Davis & Andrea Riseborough) the film is still awaiting UK distribution, and looks increasingly unlikely to get it. Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” straddles similar ground, and despite a toxic festival run, is being rolled out wide. Proof then, that Hollywood is no meritocracy. “Disconnect” had its share of sensationalised plotting, but “Children” takes it to ridiculous lengths, boasting heightened drama governed by improbable logic and dicey characterisation. The difference is that Reitman is an established awards troubler, and the cast, including Adam Sandler, Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner and Ansel Elgort are confirmed A-listers. There are still relevant and powerful stories to be stripped from the essence of our digital double lives, but after 2010’s “The Social Network”, film-makers need to aim higher than this.

In a small Texan community, the possibility of cyberspace is having a vast effect. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) use it as a means of escaping their sexless bed. Failed actress Donna (Judy Greer) pimps images of her vacuous daughter online, hoping a controversial web presence will ensure stardom. Footballer Tim (Ansel Elgort) medicates his newfound emptiness with philosophy and videogames, bonding with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who is in turn ruthlessly policed by her mother (Jennifer Garner). Together these stories interweave and expose how we facilitate hidden desire, fading humanity and challenge identity perception through the callous dark of monitors.

After a string of celebrated successes (“Juno” and the cruelly underrated “Young Adult”), Reitman hit a roadblock last year with the unconvincing “Labour Day”, a trite domestic drama that warbled into farce. “Men, Women & Children” flaunts similar problems, many of which come down to the picture’s unpolished screenplay. Writer Erin Cressida Wilson and Reitman have fashioned a film dominated by farfetched humans, the dubious stitching provided by a silly voiceover (albeit gloriously delivered by Emma Thomson). Adopting philosophy courtesy of Carl Sagan, the feature is a melting pot of artifice, populated by personalities who don’t ring true. The worst offender is Jennifer Garner’s unmotivated cyber-phobe, preaching all manner of paranoid nonsense, without ever once having her fears ratified by drama. Her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), takes the brunt of this onslaught, but the rest of the community are also subjected to irrational pamphlet-pushing. Watching the character helm a cringe-inducing internet awareness group (I assume membership has been dropping steadily since 2006) feels dishonest and dated, a lazy way for the film-makers to address the threat of online chicanery. This level of apathy carries through much of the film’s tech-oriented observation, only ever finding naturalism in the wider issues. Overseeing Sandler and DeWitt fool around on various hook-up sites to numb the pain of a deadening marriage is brutal, but watching them indirectly confront each other is compelling. The lengths to which Greer uses the internet for crude sprog-promotion is head-thumpingly stupid, but witnessing the actress tackle the repercussions of her behaviour is unsettling. “Men, Women & Children” doesn’t utilise its USP intelligently, but on a grounded plain, the performances and Reitman’s assured understanding of conflict prove satisfactory. Unfortunately the movie is mired in a laughable netherworld of twenty-first century bunkum, a universe it critically appears to misunderstand.

The calibre of acting isn’t egregious, even if some of the younger performers lose their battle with the suspect source. Ansel Elgort is flat and unappealing as a footballer in the throes of existential woe (a pity after his fine work in “The Fault in Our Stars”), forced through a rigmarole of underdeveloped parental panic and terminal loneliness. Reitman and Wilson attempt to channel his crisis through a stratum of video-game culture, failing in a bid for credibility. His IM conversations communicate the superficiality of online retreat, but don't integrate with the core issue meaningfully. None of it feels right; even the sight of Sandler (again proving he’s a sound dramatic presence) masturbating plays like a lie. And I’m willing to bet Adam Sandler has tossed -off before. Despite Reitman’s warm lighting, “Men, Women & Children” is a frosty and isolating endeavour, an unremarkable beast mistaking teen sexuality, adultery and Jennifer Garner as a Terminator for incisive commentary. It may mean well, but the film’s a dud. Find a way to see “Disconnect” instead. 

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014

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