I’m not going to lie. I went to see Jason Retiman’s Men, Women & Children, because of the tepid critical reaction ignited by its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
What was I expecting? Well, reviews were terrible. Some of them pointed out to the fact that Reitman seemed to have lost any kind of notion of how human emotions work, others on the movie’s infuriating gender politics, or its overly preachy tone. All in all reviews made it seem as if this wasn’t just a bad movie. Men, Women & Children seemed to be what I call an “Awards Trainwreck”: a movie that comes out late in the year, usually hoping to garner some Oscar nominations, but is really a profoundly confused movie. It think it’s good, but it really isn’t. A good example of this would actually be Reitman’s last movie, Labor Day, which wanted to present the incredibly creepy and ridiculous story of an escaped con falling in love with an agoraphobic housewife as a sweeping romance, but came out as a seedy, trashy affair.
Somehow, the movie managed to meet my expectations and disappoint me at the same time. Because on the one hand, there is no doubt that Jason Reitman (who came into the scene after directing Juno and Up in the Air) is a person who has absolutely lost touch with what humans are like. On the other hand, Men, Women and Children doesn’t offer any of the pulpy thrills of Labor Day, which might be a bad movie, but an undoubtedly entertaining one. Reitman’s latest is boring from start to finish. Don’t be fooled. It is terrible, but it is by no means the trainwreck I was hoping it would be. It’s just a bad, boring movie.
In case you’re not aware, it is an ensemble drama about the dangers of the internet. It focuses on the inhabitants of a small town, all of whose lives are affected one way or another by the internet, resulting, most of the time, in their not being able to connect with other human beings and find happiness. To deliver its message, it utilizes the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and populates its world with a bunch of one-dimensional characters who only have one aspect to them. That’s how you end up with Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt playing a couple who look for affairs and professional companionship when their marriage goes stale. Judy Greer as a mother obsessed with making her daughter a Hollywood star because she couldn’t become one. Jennifer Garner as an incredibly uptight mother who monitors her daughter’s every move to protect her form the dangers of the internet, and so on.
That’s Men, Women & Children‘s first huge problem, it wants to say profound things about our existence in a hugely digitalized world when it is barely skimming the surface of its themes. It begins with a narration in which Emma Thompson tells us about the Voyager aircraft that is making its way through the universe and holds records of what life on earth look like, but the movie’s depiction of life on earth could be summed up by a list of stereotypes. If you think the adult characters I just described are bad, wait until you hear about the kids. There’s a boy who can only get aroused by the most extreme types of porn. A girl who uploads sexy pictures of herself because she wants to feel desired. A girl who suffers from anorexia and has a crush on a huge douche. And a couple of kids, played by popular teen actors Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, who feel disconnected from the world except when they’re with each other. He’s the guy whose father can’t understand why he has left football in favor of computer games, and she is the girl who wants to rebel because she’s been long repressed by her mother’s paranoia.
If it sounds overwrought and tired, it’s because it is. It’s very clear to me what Reitman is trying to do with this movie. He is trying to tap into the cultural zeitgeist, and have people react to this movie as a revelation of the true colors of their lives in the same way Sam Mendes’s American Beauty did back in 1999. The bad news is that Men, Women & Children doesn’t feature any of the satiric approach of the older movie, not to mention the fact that American Beauty isn’t a particularly deep movie to begin with, but rather a very immature and simplistic one. If there was an interesting movie to be made about the way people relate to the internet and their electronic devices, this is certainly not it. This movie is as scared of computers as a science fiction film made thirty years ago.
But the movie’s fatal mistake is its indulgence in two of the most widely perpetuated myths about youth and the internet. One of them is the paranoid belief that male teenagers don’t want anything but have meaningless wild sex, and that female teenagers only want to have sex because they are pressured by either boys or society into indulging in these perfectly human desires. The other is the notion that friendships and relationships developed online are somehow less authentic than those created in real life. This movie is so outdated I bet it would think that sending postcards and letters with a pen-pal is also more authentic than finding a friend on Twitter or Tumblr. Men, Women & Children has nothing to offer.
Grade: 3 out of 10