MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN. Kaitlyn Dever, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ansel Elgort, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler. Directed by Jason Reitman. 120 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, sexual references, coarse language and nudity).
Never quite as smart or incisive as it thinks it is, ‘Men, Women & Children’ delivers tepid, dated commentary on the impact of the internet on our daily lives. The strong ensemble cast is ultimately let down by co-writer and director Jason Reitman’s heavy handed treatment of its message and relentlessly gloomy tone.
The film follows a large group of (you guessed it) men, women and children in a Texan town, as they struggle with problems brought about by modern technology.
Married couple Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosmaries DeWitt) struggle with infidelity – he seeks out escorts online whilst she uses an affair arranging website. Their 15-year-old son Chris (Travis Tope) is addicted to deviant pornography, and struggles finding the same romantic connection with real people.
Single mother Joan (Judy Greer) sells provocative lingerie shoots of her young daughter and wannabe celebrity Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) online, whilst simultaneously trying to enter her in talent contests and acting workshops.
Tim (Ansel Elgort), the football star of his high school, decides to quit playing after discovering the philosophy of Carl Sagan, which posits that nothing humans do matters in the scheme of the whole universe. His single father Kent (Dean Norris) has struggled since his wife left him for California, and his son throws away his footballing talent, but may have found a new romance with Joan.
Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) strikes up a friendship with Tim, while her overbearing mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) rigorously polices all her interactions on the World Wide Web and her mobile phone usage to protect her from the dangers of online predators.
Allison (Elena Kampouris) suffers from an eating disorder, taking inspiration from a fasting website, while harbouring a crush on cruel older boy Brandon (Will Peltz). She manages to sleep with Brandon at a friend’s house, but their brief relationship is not without its consequences.
The ultimate message in the film appears to be that humanity has its interpersonal connections crippled by the overwhelming presence of technology in our contemporary lives. Scenes often features hundreds of extras walking past in the background with the heads downwards, eyes resolutely glued to the screens of their smartphones. However, this is hardly new commentary on modern day living – recent films such as ‘Her’ and ‘The Social Network’ have covered the same ground, though with far superior results.
There is a flimsy wraparound plot concerning the Voyager Space Probe leaving our solar system, narrated by Emma Thompson. Whilst the voiceover is occasionally funny, it is frustratingly obvious and comes across as weak storytelling. While visual effects supervisor Gareth Smith has crafted beautiful images of the satellite floating past familiar planets (and also found a neat way of displaying digital screens as projections in the diegetic space), there is nothing to make this section of the film necessary to the rest of it, nor does it create any tonal consistency to carry through.
Reitman is salvaged somewhat by a committed cast. Sandler, playing against his idiotic manchild persona as a regular father struggling in his marriage, is reserved and sympathetic, as is Rosmarie DeWitt as his wife. Two other scenes boast fantastic performances worth noting. Chris speaking to Hannah about the rumours she has spread delivers two knockouts from young performers to watch in the future, and Joan explaining her website to Kent is laden with heartbreak from television veteran Dean Norris. The sour note is sadly Jennifer Garner, whose character is too cartoonishly paranoid about technology that no actress could have saved her – the scripts attempt at the end to humanise her feels forced.
A missed opportunity, the obstinately bleak ‘Men, Women & Children’ covers well-trod ground about modern usage of technology with nothing new to say.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 27.