Stop searching – there’s only a few weeks left of this year, but we’ve found the 2014 recipient of the Rick Deckard Award for Worst, Most Pointless Voiceover in a Motion Picture. The winner, by some distance, is Emma Thompson’s omniscient chorus in Men, Women & Children.
Originally titled Pale Blue Dot, this relationship drama opens with a confounding galactic vista that looks more like something from Interstellar than the film promised by the trailers (and we’ll get to those) as Thompson’s narrator recounts how the Voyager space probe was loaded up with music, pictures and greetings from Earth when it was launched in 1977, and quotes Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot while referring to our planet.
The film then refers back to the satellite’s progress through space throughout, while also juggling the stories of five families with high school-age kids, and how their relationships have been affected by social media and mobile phones. Voyager travels on, transmitting information without any measurable outcome, as do the characters back on Earth. Even Drax the Destroyer wouldn’t have much trouble with such an obvious metaphor.
For this writer at least, the film is a baffling combo-breaker from Jason Reitman. Critics were sniffy about last year’s dizzy romance drama Labor Day, but that still wasn’t too far removed from his previous terrific run of Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Up In The Air and the criminally under-seen Young Adult.
These were all character-driven films that found profound meaning in the intimate. Disappointingly for fans of these previous Reitman films, Men, Woman & Children is almost exactly the opposite, striving for connection in a sprawling, intergalactic mess of sub-plots. There’s frankly enough of a pile-up here without the critics who piled on this box office flop and it would give us no pleasure to jump on top.
Those trailers are a curious case- for the UK release, Paramount have focused on the relationship between gentle giant Tim (Ansel Elgort) and Brandy, (Kaitlyn Dever) in a transparent attempt to cash in on the former actor’s success in The Fault In Our Stars. If that’s worked, there will have been a lot of confused fans in the audience, especially when the film opens in “EXT. OUTER SPACE.”
Meanwhile, Brandy’s mother Patricia (a quite unhinged Jennifer Garner) is madly over-protective of her daughter, monitoring all of her phone and internet communications and generally acting like a prison warden over Brandy’s social life.
As for Tim, who we first see walking against a crowd of classmates on their phones, bumping shoulders as they wander down the corridor, he has a strained relationship with his recently divorced dad (the often superb Dean Norris) after quitting the near-psychotic pep of high school football to invest a thousand hours of his life in an online RPG. In Brandy, however, he finds a kindred spirit in his solitude.
These aspects give you much more of an idea of the flavour of the film overall, with Tim and Brandy each being isolated in their own way, and Patricia’s lack of understanding of her daughter painting a clear illustration of how becoming more connected has left us more distant from one another.
Apt as that illustration is on its own, imagine that that’s also the main problem with the film- rather than simply let us figure things out on our own, Reitman (who co-wrote the script with Erin Cressida Wilson) spoon-feeds us through at least five more examples to illustrate his point.
Adam Sandler, who so seldom goes in for the serious role over the comedy bucks, actually gets many of the more subtle and relatable moments as Don, whose frustrated relationship with his wife Helen (Rosemary DeWitt) is painted in a number of wordless scenes, from playing Words With Friends on their iPads while sharing a bed, to a marvellously subtle shot of their bed during a passionless sex session.
Theirs is one of the many sub-plots that comments on sex in the age of the internet, with Don seeking out an escort onto whom he can project his fantasies, while Helen looks for no-strings affairs with married men. Meanwhile, Judy Greer plays the polar opposite of Garner’s character, as a stage mother who naively takes suggestive pictures of her 15-year-old daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) for a portfolio website.
As it wears on, it becomes increasingly condescending and some decent turns get lost in the mix. Your heart goes out to Allison (Elena Kampouris), a girl with an eating disorder who fancies a hateable jock, but she’s so tangential to the other four families, you often forget about her between scenes. This also leads to JK Simmons, Reitman’s longest serving collaborator, being criminally underused as Allison’s father.
There might be a cut of the film that is closer to what those UK trailers have portrayed, with Elgort and Dever’s coy and believable romance at the fore, but that’s wouldn’t be nearly as lurid as the subjects that Reitman apparently wants to skewer, the most bizarre of which is the two-way impact of 9/11 in sex and communications.
So, while we could have seen a lot more of Tim and Brandy, we could definitely stand to have seen less of Don’s porn-addicted son Chris (Travis Tope) finding a more inventive way to enjoy a football than tossing it. The latter also happens to be the moment where Thompson’s aloof commentary finally becomes unbearably cringeworthy.
As we said, there’s little point in piling on the film – it’s more disappointing than actively bad. There have been bigger, dumber movies released this year and we can hardly get too mad about a film that puts too much thought in, rather than too little.
But for all of its good intentions and solid work by an over-staffed ensemble, Men, Women & Children isn’t even a near miss. Like the symbolic distance between Voyager and the Pale Blue Dot, the end result is a whole galaxy away from “good”.
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