Monday, October 6, 2014

Men, Women & Children (*1/2)

Directed by Jason Reitman


I remember being in college when Jason Reitman's film Up in the Air was about to be released in the Fall of 2009, and Reitman made a stop at my campus to talk with all of us dopey film students. I don't remember too much about that talk he gave us, it was mostly empty stories and non-answers. But I always remembered when he spoke about what inspired him to make Up in the Air. He went on a monologue about modern technology, and pulled out his cell phone as a personal Exhibit A of what's wrong with society. All of these things that we have - cell phones, Facebook, chat rooms, role-playing games - that are meant to bring us together, are actually pulling us apart, he felt. The reason I remembered this particular speech was because when I finally got around to seeing Up in the Air, that didn't seem to be the movie's thesis at all. Perhaps Reitman wasn't deliberate enough in his wanted mesaage. That's the only explanation I can think of for Men, Women & Children being his latest film. If people didn't understand how awful social technology was in 2009, they definitely are getting the hint now, as Reitman presents a film that's so self-righteous, the message is blinding.

The film is based on a novel by Chad Kultgen, and Reitman's screenplay (which he wrote with Erin Cressida Wilson) is watched over by the scrutinous voice-over narration of an omniscient narrator, provided by Emma Thompson. Thompson's studious voice watches over a Texas suburb and introduces us to each of the many characters that Men, Women & Children has to offer with a technical distance that all but reinforces the distance between the film's characters. There's the Truby family: The father, Don (Adam Sandler), is a flabby, porn-addicted man who has to use his son's computer to masturbate because his is filled with too much malware. The wife, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), is a housewife who dreams of an affair, not because she doesn't like Don, but because she's just bored. Their son, fifteen-year-old Chris (Travis Tope), has an even worse porn addiction than Don, and in fact, his mind has become so warped by the extra deviant nature of what he watches that he fears that real life sex (which he's never had) won't be enough to arouse him. This becomes trouble when he starts flirting with the cheerleader, Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia), a wannabe model and actress who runs a website with her single mother, Donna (Judy Clint), that shows off uncomfortably scandalous photos of Hannah and even offers subscriptions and private photo shoots.

Chris plays for the much-ballyhooed high school football team. The team is, in many ways, the heart of the town, but the team's performance dips when the star quarterback, Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), decides to quit the team. Over the Summer, his mother abandoned him and his father Kent (Dean Norris) to have an affair with a man in California. That, combined with his new obsession with Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, has made Tim feel like human life is totally meaningless, and thus, playing football is meaningless. Kent wants Tim to keep playing but doesn't push him. Tim becomes the scapegoat for the team's losing season and loses all his friends, and resorts to playing 'Guild Wars' an online RPG that allows him to descend into a fantasy world, far away from the harsh reality he now lives with. But Tim is able to make a human connection with fellow student Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), and the two loners become close friends, despite Brandy's maddening watchdog mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner). Patricia has an obsession with the dangers of the internet and has even installed a device that tracks all of Brandy's internet activity, down to the last keystroke. She uses Brandy's cell phone to track her movements away from home and hands out pamphlets at the football games to alert parents as to how to keep their children safe.

The film's treatment of the character of Patricia is interesting. The woman is a concerned mother but is becoming almost pathological in her distrust of the internet, suffocating her daughter and in the process pushing her away. And yet, Reitman's film seems to often to mimic her sentiments. The reason why movies about millennials have yet to strike gold because all to often so much time is spent lecturing on the evils of texting and social media. It felt tired when Reitman was telling us about it in 2009 and it feels even more tired five years later, when he's directed a two-hour film that is essentially yelling at us about it. I don't know what the post-baby boomers are so afraid of when it comes to social media. There's a minor character in Men, Women & Children named Allison (Elena Kampouris) whose anorexia has allowed her to lose a ton of weight and gain the middling interest of her lifelong crush. Her eagerness to be with him leads to unprepared sex and even more dyer consequences. And Reitman thinks the internet is to blame for this? Fast Times at Ridgemont High showed over thirty years ago that this has been a high school problem long before Facebook and Tumblr have been around.

The one thing that Reitman still brings to the table with his latest film is his chemistry with actors. DeWitt, Sandler, Norris and Greer, amongst many are really giving us some good stuff here, but it's wrapped in such wrongheaded heavy-handedness that it feels like a waste. As the movie's moral center, the relationship that grows between Tim and Brandy - a common high school movie trope, two youngsters cope together through their own drama at home - is the movie's high point. Kaitlyn Dever, who was so good in last year's Short Term 12 gives another strong performance here, giving off all of the effortless sincerity that comes with a high school girl trying so hard not to hurt her mom's feelings, even if her mother is acting a bit unstable. It's a performance that's similar to Ellen Page's work in Juno, another Reitman film. Not that Dever and Page are in any way playing similar characters, but Dever has a similar charm; a talent at displaying small town, grade school charm mixed with deceptive inner turmoil. Dever already seems adept at performing the child who's smarter than the adults, but wise enough not to go out of her way to prove it.

The best films that Reitman has made were written by Diablo Cody. Juno was a fantastic comedy about a small town high school oddball (with a brilliant performance from Page), and Young Adult was a sneakily tragic documentation of destroyed midwest dreams and well hidden alcoholism. His other films are slick novel adaptations, cynical about the human race but skimmed with humor to smooth out the rougher edges. When these films work (Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air) they still feel like Alexander Payne-lite, never quite as a biting as they should be. Also, it should be said that Up in the Air is all but saved by its actors. I never saw Labor Day which came out late in 2013, but it was trashed for its campy melodrama, and Men, Women & Children seems like more of the same. This is an interesting, complicated tale with multiple strands of suburban Texas ennui that could make an effective film. But that doesn't seem to be enough. Reitman makes sure each character always has a phone in their hands or a computer screen in front of them. Bubbles pop above their heads like comic strips to show what they're texting. He's dating his own material and he's not even giving it a chance. Perhaps now Reitman has gotten this tirade out of his system, and he can go back to make smart adult-oriented films that really allow good actors to shine. Preferably with no iPads.

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