Review: Men, Women & Children


Men, Women & Children

A better title for Men, Women & Children might be The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Internet. Another might be The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Movie.

I had hoped Jason Reitman's latest film would be up to the lofty standards of his best work, Juno and Up in the Air. But what could have been an insightful look at how the Internet has shaped our lives is instead a slight, heavy-handed and melodramatic cautionary tale about the dangers (at least from the film's point of view) that lurk online.

Shot in Austin, Men, Women & Children follows a group of teens and adults whose online activities land them in a heap of trouble. Among them are a mostly happy couple, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don Truby (Adam Sandler), who let their sexual boredom get the better of them; Helen finds extramarital action thanks to hookup site Ashley Madison, and Don hires an escort after perusing his son's favorite porn sites.

Meanwhile, paranoid and overprotective mom Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) obsesses over the online activities of her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), monitoring her every text and Facebook post. (She even tracks the poor girl's whereabouts via her cell phone.) Despite her mom's spying and smothering, Brandy still manages to carry on a secret relationship with football star Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), who quits the team so he can devote more time to online role playing games.

Tim's father, Kent (Dean Norris), worries that his son is heading down the wrong path in life by choosing video games over the manly and great American sport of football. Divorced and lonely, Kent pursues single mom Donna Clint (Judy Greer), who manages the creepily sexy website of her teen daughter, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). A self-absorbed sexpot and wannabe actress, Hannah's long-term goal is Hollywood stardom; her short-term goal is seducing Helen and Don's porn-addicted son, Chris (Travis Tope). Rounding out the group is Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), an anorexic cheerleader who fuels her emotional problems with frequent visits to websites celebrating her eating disorder.

I could have summed up Men, Women & Children's story in just a few sentences, but I described it in some detail to emphasize that the movie has far too many characters and subplots, all of which are complete clichés. From the lonely, sexually frustrated adults to the confused, hormonally driven teens, no one in Men, Women & Children is unique or original. And with so many characters, the film has little time to develop any of them or explain their motivations. We know they're troubled and make bad decisions, but why? Men, Women & Children merely blames the Internet for the characters' problems, as if their backstories -- which we know almost nothing about -- have no bearing on their online activities.

Reitman obviously intended Men, Women & Children to be a statement about the perils of spending too much time online, which can make us grow apart from our real-life family and friends (and, in extreme cases, ruin our lives). But the film is too superficial to make any persuasive arguments; it's a simplistic, moralizing movie lacking in nuance and gravitas. As if well aware of its own shallowness, Men, Women & Children makes a bizarre attempt at intellectual heft and broader perspective with frequent references to Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, even showing us images of our planet as a tiny, pale blue dot in the vastness of the cosmos. But this bit of faux-PBS documentary nonsense -- complete with narration by Emma Thompson -- seems out of place and adds no depth to such a trite film.

Beyond its triviality, Men, Women & Children is emotionally hollow. Like the characters' actions, their emotions are mostly unexplained; many scenes devolve into forced sentimentality because there's no reason for genuine feeling. Compounding these problems is Reitman's plodding direction, which makes the two-hour film seem far longer. If Men, Women & Children were a Facebook post, it would be the sort of rambling, thousand-word rant that loses its readers after a couple of paragraphs. (And if this review were a Facebook comment on the post, it would be a brief one: tl;dr -- that is, too long; didn't read.)

As bad as Men, Women & Children is, it's not a complete, uh, fail. Some of the humor works, and the acting is competent if uninspired. Surprisingly, Sandler's performance may be the film's best (yes, I actually said that) -- he's almost shockingly understated as a husband and father who lacks judgment but not devotion to his family. Garner also does a fine job of making us despise Patricia, a controlling, borderline psychotic woman whose maternal concern does not justify the misery she inflicts on her daughter.

Still, Men, Women & Children's bright spots can't save it. Like its characters' lives, it's mostly a mess. Your time would be better spent on the Internet.

Austin/Texas connections: Men, Women & Children was shot in Austin. Garner is from Houston.