Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content including Graphic Dialogue throughout -some involving Teens, and for Language
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson
(based on the novel MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN by Chad Kultgen)
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, J.K. Simmons, David Denham, Jason Douglas & Emma Thompson
I was actually planning on reviewing MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN during its theatrical run last October, but the film jumped in and out of theaters in a blink of an eye. The film tanked horribly and holds the title as one of the lowest grossing movie weekends for a film playing in 600+ theaters. The reason I didn’t watch this one in theaters was because it vanished within a week’s time. Jason Reitman’s dark ensemble drama about the dangers of the internet was on the same ground with BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP for briefest wide release in 2014. However, this movie looked good and I wanted to see it regardless. Having now watched it, I’m of the opinion that MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is a severely mixed bag. There are things that stand out as good (even great) in areas, but just as many silly clichés and awkwardness where there should be emotions.
The story revolves around five different families who are all struggling with dark secrets. Helen and Don Truby are a bored married couple who both desire to be unfaithful, while their fifteen-year-old son struggles with a pornography addiction. Patricia Beltmeyer is an extremely overprotective mother, whose misguided actions (monitoring every one of her daughter’s online interactions, text messages, tracking the GPS on her cell phone) are smothering her frustrated teenager. Then there’s Joan Clint who helps her daughter with a modeling website that’s overly risqué. Wait, did I forget to mention the Mooneys (father and son who are both struggling with identity crisis after their wife/mother leaves them) and the Doss family (whose cheerleader daughter is suffering from an eating disorder)? You might already see a bit of the main problem with MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN in this synopsis which is that there’s way too much ground to cover for a two-hour film.
Director/co-writer Jason Reitman adapts Chad Kultgen’s novel and doesn’t seem to grasp that there simply isn’t enough time to properly show every single scene of 320-page book on the screen. It’s almost as if Reitman tried to adapt all the subplots and two of these could have easily been cut out entirely. The social issues that the characters struggle with are important (body image, addiction, temptation, etc.), but the whole film tries to encompass every one of these problems and doesn’t have a full grasp any of them. Since the focus is mainly on the actions of the characters, actual character development is kept to a minimum for most of the cast. This also leads to unresolved plot threads as this film is tackling about 17 characters and wants us to feel something towards each one of them.
Even with character development is on the shallow side, the performers almost save the film in some ways. Ansel Elgort (a hit among young adult audiences with FAULT IN OUR STARS and DIVERGENT) takes on his most emotionally mature role yet as a kid suffering from depression. Judy Greer is solid in the role of a mother vicariously living through her child and Jennifer Garner is frustrating as a misguided mom who won’t even let her teenage daughter breathe without permission. Most surprising is Adam Sandler’s understated role as Don and shows that he still has dramatic chops when he chooses to use them. The young cast members (far too many to list) all sell their characters as believable teenagers struggling with their own problems. Seeing as the movie takes on far too many characters, a few quality actors are swept to the sidelines, including J.K. Simmons and Dean Norris.
I imagine that most people will have a problem with the overall message and execution. This might not have been the deliberate intention of Reitman, but it feels like a lot of blame is going towards the internet at the sole cause of every one of these problems. Though there’s no defense against social networks and websites fuelling issues that were already there, it feels like too simple an answer to blame addiction, body image, and cheating spouses completely on modern technology. Those issues existed long before the dawn of the internet and will continue long after. It feels like the film is trying to make a grand, sweeping, and revelatory statement, but it’s old news and has been seen in better films (2013’s DISCONNECT).
MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN doesn’t make any new discoveries about technology feeding into serious problems and tries to cover way too much ground at once. There are great scenes hidden in the plodding two-hour run time and many solid performances as well, but these are almost drowned out by a pretentious attitude towards the material (coming off as cliché more than once) and underdeveloped characters that populate a massive cast. The good and bad evenly weigh themselves out into a middle-of-the-road experience that is likely to leave just about everyone unsatisfied or slightly pissed off.