There are times during Jason Reitman's Men, Women, and Children that it seems like the director is going for something incredibly profound here. While Men, Women, and Children never quite reaches anything profound, it's a far better film than many are giving it credit for and, despite more mature themes than we often see at Indy's Heartland Film Festival, the film deserves its spot as the 2014 Heartland Film Festival's opening night film.
The film follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate the many ways that the internet has changed our relationships, the ways that we communicate, self-image, and even our love lives. The film, much like the Chad Kultgen novel upon which it is based, attempts to cover a lot of ground and doesn't always do so successfully. However, it's one of the better films in dealing with such contemporary social issues as the video game culture, fame hunting, eating disorders, infidelity and, not surprisingly, the overwhelming presence of illicit material one can now find on the internet.
Reitman, as one might expect, doesn't gloss over these issues and does a nice job of examining each character and each relationship and the roads that they choose along the way, some tragic and others hopeful.
Men, Women, and Children has its naysayers and deservedly so. The film's script is hyper-intentional and at times painfully self-aware. It's fairly certain that most will fault the film for being rather obvious in presentation, occasionally pretentious, and far more melodramatic than I have to believe is intended.
That said, despite generally negative reviews my gut feeling tells me that a few years down the road Men, Women, and Children will be a far more respected film. On some level, the film may remind viewers of Crash and it may remind viewers of everything one liked and didn't like about Crash. The stories here intertwine, though in a mostly disconnected way that is an intentional choice. Men, Women, and Children is an ensemble film with Adam Sandler getting top billing as Don, a middle-aged man with a porn addiction and an unhappy marriage to Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is equally unhappy and the two are both acting out on that unhappiness in fairly similar ways. Chris (Travis Tope), their son, is in the early stages of a porn obsession himself. Chris's obsession is so pronounced that he can't function particularly well when he meets Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a young girl being pushed into a Lolita-like online presence by her mother (Judy Greer), who eventually begins dating Kent (Dean Norris) and whose own son, Tim (Ansel Elgort), has dropped off the football team following his mother's leaving the family for California. Tim now spends his time playing MMORPG, but eventually forms a connection with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), an ultra-shy girl from school whose mother (Jennifer Garner) monitors her every move on the web.
Sound confusing? It kind of is confusing. For the most part, it actually works.
The real pity of Men, Women, and Children's lack of critical acclaim is the lack of regard for Adam Sandler's winning performance. It still amazes me when I run into someone who isn't familiar with Sandler's dramatic work in such films as Reign Over Me or Punch-Drunk Love, but his work here may very well be among his best yet. It seems like the media is quick to slam his appearances in films such as Blended, which was also better than its notices despite not loving up to Sandler's other work with Drew Barrymore, but the media generally ignores the guy when he turns in such a fine performance as he does here.
Men, Women, and Children could have easily been a distracting film considering the challenge of portraying the ensemble's online lives, but Reitman comes up with a simple yet effective way to make it all work and for the most part it does. I wasn't as comfortable with Emma Thompson's narration, which is more distracting than complementary with the film. In addition to Sandler's fine performance, both Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever do nice work and Jennifer Garner turns in her usual fine performance. Rosemarie DeWitt works nicely with Sandler, though she's not really given as much to do.
I'm aware that many considered Labor Day to be a major drop in quality for the director of Juno and Up in the Air. While I'd also argue that Labor Day was a better film than it was also given credit for, I'd also argue that Men, Women, and Children is a definite step upward.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic