Published Sep 11, 2014Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children is a return to the director's ensemble-based dramedies, after detours with the more narrowly-focused Young Adult and last year's critically-maligned Labor Day. Reitman's latest film doesn't reach the highs of his early work, but also isn't quite the disaster early reviews have proclaimed it to be at this year's festival.
Since his 2006 debut, Thank You for Smoking, Reitman has merged broad, often-juvenile social commentary with nuanced and well-developed characterization, creating a fascinating tension between winning performances from his impeccably-casted ensembles (Aaron Eckhart in Smoking, George Clooney in Up in the Air, Ellen Page in Juno), and the awkward words they spit out. Without blinking an eye, many of his characters will stop their film dead in its tracks at least once an act to deliver eye-rolling Philosophy 101 seminars, insufferable in the context of their typically upper-class positions of power.
Reitman has succeeded in recent years — beginning with 2009's Up in the Air and peaking with 2011's Young Adult — by layering a genuine sense of melancholy and loss to his films, often thanks to his careful approach to characterization and more narrow focus compared to his "societal problem" early films. This melancholic streak can be effective when used sparingly, such as in the carefully-timed character reveals in Young Adult, but can overpower a weaker vehicle like Men, Women & Children, where the misery is turned up to 11 for all characters. Even in the context of Reitman's filmography, this one is a serious bummer. Coupled with more heavy-handed social commentary than in previous works, this might be the most awkward film of Reitman's career, wildly careening between tones amid a tired Fincher-esque new age aesthetic. Call it The Social Network lite.
The film isn't without its strengths, though, and there is some truly great work here, especially in the younger members of Reitman's ensemble, Kaitlyn Dever and Ansel Elgort, the latter of whom is no stranger to the misery-porn genre after a turn in this summer's eye-rolling The Fault in Our Stars. The film is based on the 2011 novel by Chad Kultgen and brings together a Crash-style narrative, wherein a large group of people are linked together by a broad set of circumstances. The target of Reitman's criticism this time around is the Internet and social media in all its forms, as characters face challenges that are thrown under a microscope thanks to the many online venues they frequent.
It all gets off to a great start, setting up an incredibly intriguing first act with a sexual frankness uncommon in major studio films these days. While the film tries its hardest to be a Sex, Lies and Videotape for today's generation, Reitman's societal critiques are just too broad, without anything to say about his targets. The film isn't able to sustain the momentum and frankness developed in the first act, falling into eye-rolling predictability and narrative strain due to too many storylines.
Reitman's older cast, highlighted by turns from Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner, fall under two registers: barely-awake (typical from Sandler, through disappointing given his usual propensity to try harder in his Oscar-baiting dramatic fare) and shriek-y, political soap-box shouting (unfortunate for Garner, as her more recent dramatic work has seen impressive nuance, as in last year's Dallas Buyers Club). Judy Greer and Dean Norris fair much better, emerging as the MVPs of the film.
Men, Women & Children is ultimately a disappointing return to Reitman's "societal problem" films, lacking the focus of his more recent films while doubling down on the misery. (Paramount)