Sunday, September 27, 2015

Technically Magnicifent, Actually Miserable: Men, Women & Children Makes Us Want To Bail!

The Good: Amazing cast, Good direction
The Bad: Oppressive mood, Neglected character motivations
The Basics: Complicated and engaging, Men, Women & Children is enough to make any viewer absolutely miserable.

These days, it takes a lot to sell me on watching a movie by the preview. I've been busy and previews tend to either tell me not nearly enough or way too much (like, the entire film). When my wife was trying to choose a film for us to watch today, Men, Women & Children came up as an option and it suddenly reminded me that I had seen a preview for the film that made it look real good. It lived up to the previews - Men, Women & Children was awkward, insightful, and well-presented, though it was disturbing on a number of fronts.

Co-writer and director Jason Reitman does a decent job of capturing the way people are disconnected today by weaving together several thinly-related stories of people living in Austin, Texas in modern times. Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson adapted the film from the book by the same name and it is worth noting that I've not read the book upon which it is based. This review is entirely of the film, not any sort of comparative analysis with the book.

Men, Women & Children is much like Magnolia (reviewed here!) or Cradle Will Rock (reviewed here!) in that it has a large cast of characters and explores relationships more than it tells a single, solid, cohesive story. Don Truby and his wife, Helen, have lost all passion for one another and both consider having affairs. Their son, Chris, has gotten so deep into online erotica that when he is faced with the potential of affection from one of his peers, he is utterly uninterested and unable to engage with her. Tim Mooney was a once-promising football player, but when his mother abandons him and his father, he quits the team and tries to find his own path. He becomes enamored with Brandy Beltmeyer, a girl whose mother is so incredibly overprotective of her that she oppressively monitors both her physical locations and her entire online presence.

Chris begins a relationship with Hannah Clint, a girl whose mother is actively trying to make her a celebrity (with a pretty skanky website). And there's Allison Doss, an anorexic who feels immense pressure to not eat and have sex. As Hannah's mother and Tim's father begin to explore a relationship, Don and Helen explore extramarital affairs and most of the teenagers become sexually active to varying degrees.

Men, Women & Children is a great example of a film that perfectly captures and characterizes the disconnect between people in the modern age of connective devices like smartphones and tablets. Virtually all of the characters are miserable and the performers do an excellent job of characterizing how fast societal and technological changes have come and families have not had the time or ability to respectfully adapt.

This is one of those films that is difficult to discuss in depth and I liked it for that. The performances are almost homogeneously raw. The brilliance of Jason Reitman as a director is that he captures some powerful and realistic performances out of both the young and seasoned castmembers and there is not a single moment of the film that felt like "first take theatre." The moments seem perfectly rendered and at times incredibly painful to watch, but the movie never feels like it was clumsily arrived at.

Arguably the best performances in Men, Women & Children come from Dean Norris, Jennifer Garner, and Adam Sandler. Sandler's best moment comes in a wordless moment late in the film that reminds viewers that the goofy former Saturday Night Live performer has evolved into a real dramatic powerhouse of an actor. Garner is cold and distant as Patricia and Dean Norris manages to make his role of Kent unlike his Breaking Bad part. Judy Greer delivers her usual wonderful performance as Donna Clint and is anything but goofy (as some of her talent often inspires her to be). Even the young cast is marvelous and well-utilized by Reitman.

But the film is far from perfect. Garner's Patricia is overbearing and controlling . . . for no stated reason. Similarly, Allison's storyline is unsatisfyingly unresolved and her relationship with her parents is underdeveloped. Men, Women & Children wastes the talents of J.K. Simmons in the role of Allison's father. Reitman managed to not be salacious with the teenagers who are having sex, but characters like Hannah are just troubling to watch.

Men, Women & Children did what great films ought to do; it inspired conversations in my household. My wife and I have been talking about it since we finished watching it (it unsettled both of us) and both of us remain delighted to be childfree by choice after watching the movie. But much of Men, Women & Children is plagued by characters who simply are not communicating and that is not a new problem at all, despite the filmmaker's attempts to blame that on the internet. The internet did not suddenly make people stop communicating or have affairs, though Men, Women & Children accurately explores how online porn has ruined the mystique and imagination people used to have for sex.

The other thing my wife and I realized was that despite the film's importance, Men, Women & Children is unlikely to reach the audience it needs to. Are overprotective parents going to watch Men, Women & Children and suddenly say, "Patricia is just crazy!"? No. They're likely to say, "if that mom was more lenient, their kid would end up like Allison." Men, Women & Children is like the interpersonal story analogous to Blood Diamond (reviewed here!). Is it going to make people feel terrible? Absolutely. Will it inspire conversations? Sure. Will it lead to profound change? Absolutely not.

Worth watching once, Men, Women & Children is difficult and unsettling in a way that makes one not want to ever watch it again.

For other works with Rosemarie DeWitt, please visit my reviews of:
The Odd Life Of Timothy Green
The Watch
Rachel Getting Married

7.5/10 (Not Recommended)

For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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