There’s no escaping how the Internet, mobile phones and cameras, texting, and so on have changed our lives, and director Jason Reitman tackles that issue in his sixth feature, Men, Women and Children. Based on a novel by Chad Kultgen, the film (which Reitman co-wrote with Erin Cressida Wilson) follows a group of adults and teens in a Texas town as their lives and relationships are affected by the way we communicate in the 21st century. It’s not a new subject, but still undoubtedly relevant enough to mine for dramatic material. So why does Reitman’s 2014 film feel like it was shot four or more years ago?
Up until now, I’ve been onboard with Reitman, enjoying his first four films tremendously (especially the caustic and profound Up in The Air and Young Adult) and finding his angles on our social and personal relationships fresh, cynical, and sharply observed. I still have not seen Labor Day, his 2013 period piece starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin that was largely derided by a number of critics as a misfire, so I’m still coming off the good vibes of his previous work. Sadly, Men, Women and Children ends that streak: the movie is so stiff, so lifeless, so pretentious, and so wagging-its-finger judgmental that it seems like a completely different filmmaker is operating under his name.
The problem is that Reitman has absolutely nothing to say about the way we communicate now except that it’s bad in some vague way. But we’ve been hearing that for a while, whether it’s the latest story about a pedophile lurking in an online forum or someone driving themselves off a cliff while texting or, more recently, nude photos being leaked all over the Web. We hear about these things every day. We find ourselves glued to our phones or Twitter feeds while our families sit mutely nearby. Our computers crash from viruses as we sneak into Internet porn sites. Our kids grow flabby and pale as they spend hours gaming online.
All Reitman seems to want to do with Men, Women and Children is beat us over the head with these images until I guess we just smash our phones on the ground and cancel our Facebook pages. There are barely any moments in the film that feel real – everything is diagrammed and foreshadowed within an inch of its life, dulling any intended impact. To make matters worse, the thing is slipcased inside ponderous shots of Voyager making its long, lonely journey into interstellar space (the opening shot made me think I was watching Contact 2 for a second) while Emma Thompson solemnly lectures us about how small we are in the grand scheme of things, sounding like she’s still in character as P.T. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks.
Among the large cast is Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt as a couple whose sexless marriage drives them to seek satisfaction by different means while Judy Greer plays a failed actress who is steering her fame-hungry daughter into the darker realms of celebrity status. Meanwhile, Ansel Elgort tries to come to terms with his mother’s abandonment of him and his father (Dean Norris) while starting a relationship with a young girl (Kaitlyn Dever) whose mother (Jennifer Garner) obsessively polices her daughter’s online activities. Only a lucky few show signs of having more than one dimension to them, like Greer in her few moments of dating Norris, or the scenes of genuine warmth and chemistry between Elgort and Dever. But even they have to fall prey to Reitman’s pre-ordained fates and follow the predictable path he sets out for them.
At least they don’t have to be embarrassed like Sandler, who seems to have forgotten what to do on a movie set unless Kevin James and Rob Schneider are there to back him up. Garner fares no better when her overly protective mom is shrill to the point of caricature and beyond. Reitman also owes an apology to Dennis Haysbert, the only black actor with a sizable role in the film, who is apparently there just to prove to Rosemarie DeWitt – who meets him via an online dating service — that what they say about men of color is true.
The film has a great score and is impressively shot, although the overlay of little text bubbles and email pop-ups as people tap ceaselessly at their devices feels to me like it could become the next big overused movie gimmick if it isn’t by the time this picture ends. I can’t fault the actors who come off terribly — I’ll even give Sandler a break — because they’re given so little room to breathe and grow. By the time Men, Women and Children limped perfunctorily across the finish line, I was in fact ready to turn off my phone and pull down my Twitter feed — if only to avoid being reminded of this ponderous, hollow bore.
Men, Women and Children is out in theaters Wednesday (October 1).