Men, Women & Children is the latest from Jason Reitman, who garnered his fame with well-made, well-plotted, well-paced movies like Thank You For Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), and Up in the Air (2009).
Following that impressive run, Reitman’s value dropped considerably with Young Adult (2011) and Labor Day (2013)—which was dumped into this year’s no man’s land of January release—and now he besieges audiences with Men, Women & Children a movie that tries to set the problems of four suburban families against the backdrop of the cosmos.
Set in current-day Texas, Men, Women & Children involves five families: one divorced (The Mooneys), one on their way to divorce (The Trubys), one helicopter family (The Beltmeyers), one laissez-faire family (The Clints), and one oblivious family (The Dosses). The children of all five families attend the same high school and suffer from similar problems: lack of parenting, too much parenting, lack of interaction, too much interaction, lack of sex, too much sex, lack of motivation, and on. The Narrator (Emma Thompson) places all of this against the perspective of Voyager, which is traveling to the far corner of our solar system.
Men, Women & Children is strange and out there while coming off as trite and shallow. Not a good combination.
Not that Men, Women & Children is an altogether disaster. Reitman is a good director, and he has put together a well-made movie. Turn the sound off completely, and you will see stories told in how characters relate to one another and how they are positioned in the frame for diminishing or empowering effect. The edits are natural, the camera work is beautiful (in some scenes, quite exquisite), and the characters are obvious enough that we could have followed this silent movie with ease. However, once the sound is turned back on, the problems become quite obvious.
Men, Women & Children is jam-packed with problems. While watching the movie, I started to keep a mental record of everything wrong with it: depiction of sexual deviancy, random use of suicide to solve a problem, characters coming to the conclusion that it’s better to leave things unsaid than to talk it out, a school counselor that talks like an alien from another planet, an eating disorder used to toss off a character and her family completely, obsessive parental control (apparently a-okay by the father), and on and on.
But that is too much, and to keep a running scorecard is unfair. Instead, there are two issues at the core of Men, Women & Children. One is Reitman, and the other is American Puritanism. The first is the shallowness of observation. The second is sex.
In telling this tale of five suburban families, Reitman stretches for common issues and tries to identify common solutions. I have already listed many, so I won’t repeat them here, but it seems like at some point, the script came with a checklist. Facebook? Check. Internet porn? Check. Constant texting? Check. Fathers who don’t say much? Check. But while he was busy reaching for all of these problems, as if the identification of the issue was enough for illumination, he offers no real cause as to where these problems stem from. Granted, everyone in this movie is unhappy (some more than others), and not one character has any semblance of self-esteem, but Reitman just doesn’t dig into any of it.
But while that shallow look at suburban America needlessly complicates Men, Women & Children, what makes it ring hollow is its lack of authenticity. Men, Women & Children is a movie that’s teeming with sex, from the murky waters of child pornography to loss of virginity to sexual deviance to marital affairs and excessive masturbation. They could have called this movie; Sex, Sex & Sex, and it would have made the same amount of sense. But, this is a Hollywood movie, loaded with Hollywood stars, so when it comes time to talking about sex, depicting sex, and visualizing sex, we get a typically timid approach. Shirts and bras are left on, and sheets modestly cover the actors. Nudity can be used to excellent effect when it offers more than titillation, but by not depicting it, by breaking when the foot should be on the gas, we are reminded that what we are watching is a movie. And a bad one at that.
The title says it all, Men, Women & Children. Covers all the bases. Except that it doesn’t. There’s one black character, no gay characters, and I would be willing to bet if the characters did believe in a God (one, in particular, doesn’t), it would be of a Protestant nature. In most movies, that’s fine, but in this movie, Reitman sets his five families against the existence of mankind and their role in the cosmos. We are to see these characters’ issues as OUR issues and their struggle as OUR struggle. Thanks, but no. We’re doing just fine here on our own.
Men, Women & Children (2014)
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Written by: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson
Based on the novel by: Chad Kultgen
Produced by: Helen Estabrook & Jason Reitman
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Emma Thompson, Judy Greer, Kaitlyn Dever, Dean Norris, Dennis Haysbert, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Elena Kampouris, Olivia Crocicchia
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 119 minutes, Released October 17, 2014