Men, Women & Children (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” is an attempt to look at our relationship with the internet and how it has come to define our lives in the past decade or so by focusing on a small American suburb. While the picture commands an interesting and relevant premise, it is not a successful picture. Not only is the running time too bloated—a surprise given there are multiple subplots worthy of exploration—but characters, especially in the latter half, are reduced to clichés. For a movie that tries to tackle a modern subject, it is not forward-thinking enough.
The varying strands are all cautionary tales. Perhaps most fascinating is Patricia (Jennifer Garner) who makes it her mission to protect her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), from the dangers of social media. She is convinced that if she learns every password, keeps track of every keystroke, and knows about her daughter’s location at all times, Brandy will be safe. Patricia is so busy keeping up that she fails to realize that she has a good daughter and her “protecting” is doing more harm than good. Garner plays the mother with fervor but stifles the emotions just enough to prevent the character from turning into a caricature.
A curious but undercooked character is Allison (Elena Kampouris), formerly a fat girl who lost a lot of weight during the summer. She has anorexia but she is admired by her friends for “looking beautiful.” Boys even want to sleep with her now. Each time the focus is on Allison, I could not help but think about Lauren Greenfield’s excellent but not widely seen documentary called “Thin.” That movie understands eating disorders at its core. On the other hand, this film, for the most part, makes it look like Allison’s eating disorder is about wanting to be liked rather than having an irrational obsession to restrict.
Weaker still is the strand involving a married couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) who are bored with each other and so they use the internet to hookup with strangers. We never understand why their marriage is stale. Instead, we watch them on the couch looking bored and sort of mentioning about how often they had sex years ago. Many of their scenes come across almost farcical—situations that are easily found in bad comedies. Don and Helen are not characters but stick figures. I would rather have learned more about Kent (Dean Norris) and Donna (Judy Greer), a father with a depressed son (Ansel Elgort) and a mother with a daughter craving stardom (Olivia Crocicchia).
To get us into the mood of its characters, the picture is shot in warm, pale light especially when a scene is taking place at night and indoors. This is an elementary approach but the way it is done here is most inelegant. We notice the technical elements because the drama is not completely captivating.
Lastly, given its subject of the internet’s ability to affect all lives, I was surprised to not have seen more diversity in both casting and characters. By the end, one gets the impression that this story is only about white, middle-class, heterosexual people. Them being more or less the same contributes to the screenplay running out of steam just before the halfway mark.