Jason Reitman’s incisive slice of modern suburbia is a sad, humorous and painfully relevant snapshot of our subservience to social media.
Pale Blue Dots by Dave O’Flanagan
Signifying the antithesis of last years disappointing, Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s latest film is an astute examination of the societal myopia caused by our ever-growing dependence on technology. Highlighting the irony in the isolation and desensitisation that has become symptomatic of our interconnectivity, it’s a sad and sometimes depressing indictment on the ‘progress’ of the human race. Splicing the doom and gloom with his customary wry and clever humour, Jason Reitman strikes an effective, intriguing and ultimately entertaining balance. While it sometimes labours under the weight of its multitudinous narrative strands – as well as the misjudged voiceover by Emma Thompson – Men, Women and Children is a touching, painfully relevant and engaging slice of contemporary culture.
Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a married couple stuck in a rut, desperately trying to forge intimacy in very different ways. Their son Chris (Travis Tope) is quarterback of the high school football team and a porn addict so accustomed to such specific forms of online sex that ‘normal sex’ no longer excites him. Hannah Clint (Olivia Croccicchia) is Chris’ cheerleader girlfriend, and runs a website for provocative images with her mother Donna (Judy Greer). When Donna meets Kent Mooney (Dean Norris) and their relationship develops. she begins to accept the realisation that her daughter’s website amounts to child pornography. Meanwhile, Kent’s son Tim (Ansel Elgort) is the star of the high school football team who quits when his mother leaves for California with her new boyfriend. Dealing with his isolation through friendships on MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games), Tim strikes up a friendship with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) who lives under her mother’s (Jennifer Garner) oppressive regime of net censorship.
If the labyrinthine narrative of Jason Reitman’s latest film sounds like a bit of a slog for your weekly venture to the multiplex, it’s because at times, it is. Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson’s adaption of Chad Kultgen’s novel is unwieldy as a result of its over-ambition to cover as much narrative ground as it possibly can. Featuring as many as seven main character narrative threads, the ever-changing focus of the film serves some of these characters well, while others languish in the side margins. Many will find Men, Women & Children too long to begin with, but such is the vastness in the spread of characters that you can’t help but feel this adaptation would have been better served in mini-series format.
All of that being said, I really enjoyed this unwieldy, touching and slapdash slice of social media encrusted life. While the wider contextual narrative featuring Voyager 1’s perspective in the deep dark of our solar system felt trite and gimmicky, this merely serves as framing for the film. Where Men, Women & Children truly excels is in its beady-eyed character beats. The ensemble cast are pitch-perfect, with newcomer Ansel Elgort, Rosemarie DeWitt and Dean Norris in particular delivering nuanced and affecting performances. Elgort delivers the real centerpiece role of the film, his subtle and naturalistic performance conveys an earnestness and strength in the pain and isolation of his character. His relationship with Dever’s (who is excellent) Brandy produces some of the most memorable scenes in the film, and represents the most mature, well-rounded and enjoyable relationship in the film.
Eric Steelberg’s subtle cinematography gives Reitman’s film an almost documentary aesthetic, and also serves the technological aspect of storytelling to great effect. Instant messages and general digital mumblings are used to highlight how the characters really feel and think in every situation – we discover that truths are only established once the digital veneer of social media is raised. It’s a slick and clever way of illustrating the everyday nonchalance we often have in face to face interactions. One particularly funny scene shows three of our high school characters sitting in the gym gossiping, while two of them are simultaneously and shamelessly ripping one of the girls apart over instant message.
Despite its sometimes meandering, confused and patchy narrative, Men, Women & Children is a highly entertaining and poignant expose of our all-encompassing subservience to the internet and social media. The performances are excellent, with only Jennifer Garner getting perhaps the bum deal with a one-note character. Dean Norris’ earnest and heartfelt performance as Kent Mooney is one of the best supporting roles of 2014. For all of the criticism he attracts, it’s also incumbent to highlight Adam Sandler’s ability for eking likeable serious characters out of the rest of the nonsense he produces. The Voyager aspect of the narrative is as subtle as a brick, its contextual and metaphorical raison d’être feels clumsy and trite. As a dejected Tim sits at his laptop, a blinking text cursor symbolises the pain of isolation coupled with a deep sense of alienation from the real world, it’s perhaps the most powerful statement of Reitman’s film – this is our life, and it’s ending one text cursor blink at a time.
Men, Women & Children is released on 5th December 2014 in the UK