Film review: MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN, from Built For Speed

Jason Reitman seems fascinated with the spiritual emptiness of contemporary America. With Up In The Air he captured the soullessness of corporate America through George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham a man who sacked people for a living and spent his life in the limbo of airports and hotels. With his latest film Men, Women and Children Reitman attempts to articulate the spiritual malaise of society in the internet age as he examines how the web has altered the way we relate to others, to our bodies and to sex.  Initially, Reitman explores these issues in a clever and inventive fashion but he seems to runs out of ideas and eventually resorts to cliché.

Set in middleclass Texas, the film focuses on several high school students and their parents who seem to have lost the ability to talk to one another. Rather than communicate openly they, like so many people today, rely on incessant texting, sexting, IM’ng and Facebooking.  Sexual relationships have also suffered as a reliance on internet porn has rendered males near impotent in real sexual encounters.  Also, some people have traded social groups for invisible on-line gaming communities.   The tech addiction and the threats it presumably poses trigger a series of domestic dramas that begin to split families apart.

For its all of its obsession with revolutionary modern technology and the brave or possibly fearful new world of the 21st century, the film draws heavily on films of the past.  It’s exploration of suburban America and particularly its sexual behaviour recalls Ang Lee’s dissection of Nixon-era suburbia in The Ice Storm. The film also adopts the Robert Altman approach of telling the story through a large ensemble of loosely connected characters.  Unlike Altman’s characters, though, those in Men, Women and Children don’t sweep us up in their lives.

Adam Sandler, taking a break from his production-line infantile comedies, plays Don a pudgy hirsute middle-aged guy whose sex life with wife Helen (Rosemary de Witt) is withering due to his internet porn obsession.  Ansel Elgort, who impressed in teen drama The Fault in Our Stars, plays high school football star Tim who is undergoing an existential crisis due to his mother’s sudden departure and his reading of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.  When he’s not playing an on-line war game he attempts to form a relationship with the bookish Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) whose mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) keeps her under surveillance like the Stasi, tracking the GPS on her phone and intercepting and even deleting her text messages.  Patricia frantically battles the supposed internet threats as if on a religious crusade much like the way Reagan-era mothers campaigned to neuter heavy metal music. Judy Greer plays Donna a failed actress who tries to exorcise the disappointment of her career by transforming her snarky teenage daughter Hanna (Olivia Crochicchia) into an on-line model.  Her photos, however, veer disturbingly close to child porn.  In one of the more interesting story threads Elena Kamporuis plays Allison a young girl struggling with self-esteem and severe body image issues.

This film had the ingredients for a potent examination of contemporary western culture but somehow it transforms into a slick, tech-obsessed soap opera. It feels as if we are watching three back-to-back episodes of a TV drama.  Consequently the film seems much longer than its 119 minutes.

The quality of performances varies considerably in this film.  Adam Sandler is better than we have seen him for a long time although that’s not much of a stretch given the appalling films in which he has recently starred.  Jennifer Garner’s paranoid mother should have been a moving and sad depiction of an obsessive over-protective parent but she turns into a caricature and her uptight, bespectacled librarian manner just feels forced.  Ansell Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever are the Romeo and Juliet of the piece and although both are fine in their roles their apparently forbidden romance is disappointingly tepid.  Elena Kampouris evokes genuine concerns for young women forced to conform to unrealistic body shapes but being submerged in a large cast of characters means that her story is not as potent as it should have been.

The film is bracketed by cgi images of the Voyager spacecraft hurtling through the cosmos while narrator Emma Thompson offers what are supposed to witty philosophical observations.  While the outer space special effects are impressive, these sequences don’t connect with the rest of the story in a particularly meaningful or compelling way.

This is by no means a bad film as it contains a number of funny and perceptive sequences but it fails to capitalise on the promise it offers in its first half hour.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Jason Reitman.

Release date: 27th Nov 2014

Running time: 119 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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