“Mmmm baby. That was something.”
That line comes from a delicious scene about midway into Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. The scene is comprised of both Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt’s characters in the film, who are married to each other, simultaneously engaging in extramarital activities. Sandler with an escort he hired and DeWitt with a man who seems just as experienced as an escort, but met on a dating site. This entire affair is accompanied by Hall & Oates’ tune “She’s Gone.” As DeWitt’s lover says the words above, I not only laughed – realizing this was the only moment of true levity in Reitman’s misguided film – but I found myself realizing it’s the truest statement anyone could make of this film. That scene certainly was something, if only because the rest of Men, Women & Children offers absolutely nothing of worth.
It’s a bit of a mind-boggling experience watching Men, Women & Children frankly, as it’s so tonally deaf that it’s hard to figure out when the film wants to be genuine and not. As an ensemble piece first and foremost, it splits its time up unevenly between the following scenarios:
A mother who takes provocative pictures of her daughter and posts them online while said daughter struggles to get an acting career; a young woman dealing with anorexia and teen dating; another young woman whose overprotective mother refuses to let her do anything without being tracked and checked on; a father who isn’t over his wife leaving him and takes that out on his depressed son who refuses to do anything but play Guild Wars; a young man who is obsessed with dominatrix pornography and thus can’t get aroused by anything else, including real women; and the aforementioned married couple who start cheating on each other because their sex lives were ruined by 9/11. You think that’s a joke, but it’s not.
But none of those compare to the outright ridiculous narration by Emma Thompson that ties all of this together, accompanied by pretty but meaningless shots of The Voyager I satellite floating in space.
Basically, it’s as though every cynical viral video you’ve ever seen about the way the internet and cell phones and social media are ruining our existence was shoved into a feature length film. But, just as most of those videos, Reitman and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson place the blame on the grand portion of humanity rather than the tech itself. Men, Women & Children has little to no remorse for any of its characters, a shocking feature to be found from the kind of filmmaker who has consistently managed to depict some lonely, messed up individuals with such empathy in the past, leaving one to wonder whether this misanthropy comes from the novel’s author Chad Kultgen.
The struggle to make any of these characters easy to relate to is obvious, with Ansel Elgort’s teen being one of the worst. For a character that’s supposed to be very clearly suffering from depression and finding himself being pressured constantly by his father and classmates to play football, it’s hard to sympathize with him. He’s a blank slate of a teenager, one who refuses to do anything but play Guild Wars and ridiculously muse about how meaningless life is because he heard a YouTube reading of a minor portion of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. It’s a valid interpretation of the material – the idea that nothing really matters because we’re a spec in the grand painting that is the universe – but it’s one that’s presented with such a haphazard attitude, it leaves one to wonder whether or not Reitman or Wilson gave a shit about him.
This is, sadly, not the most horrendous problem that the film boasts in its dreadfully bloated two hour length. That honor goes to the overwhelming feeling of misogyny that the film brings along. Even with the often frank presentation of sexuality in youths and adults alike, Men, Women & Children prefers to chastise and trash its women (primarily the younger ones), leaving them to deal with the bullshit this world hands them while the men, mostly, get off easy.
Jennifer Garner’s lunatic of a mother in particular does the worst damage, but the one who suffers through the most with the narrative handed to her is Elena Kampouris, playing the anorexic girl surprisingly well regardless of getting shafted with a shit tale. The way the film imposes these puritanical sensibilities on her (as well as the other characters to certain extents) is shameless, reminding anyone watching of the way sex ed videos played out in the fifties. Her arc is predictable and ends abruptly, and it’s almost as though Reitman took to heart what the coach from Mean Girls said during health class.
It’s brutal to witness all of these actors struggling to find something to work with in this awful material. They grasp wildly at nothing while drowning in a script that has no idea what it wants to be. If Men, Women & Children has something to say about humanity, it’s this: people are awful, regardless of the technology they surround themselves with. It’s a sad, cynical view of the world, and the way it’s presented – without an ounce of societal understanding or sympathy – makes it nearly impossible to stomach.
Directed by Jason Reitman; written by Jason Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson; based on Chad Kultgen’s novel of the same name; starring Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Emma Thompson, Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Crocicchia, Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, Katherine C. Hughes, Elena Kampouris, Will Peltz, J.K. Simmons, Dennis Haysbert; 119 minutes.
Men, Women & Children is currently in theaters everywhere.