What in the world has happened to Jason Reitman? The young director’s first three films charted a trajectory as promising as any in recent American cinema. His debut, Thank You for Smoking, was an uncommonly barbed and canny political satire. The follow-up, Juno, served as a genuine revelation: fresh, witty, and generous, its comic and dramatic elements in perfect equipoise. And then came the coronation/Clooneyation of Up in the Air—a somewhat more conventional film, perhaps, but a smooth and thoughtful demonstration of Hollywood craft. Juno was nominated for three Oscars (including Best Picture and Director); Up in the Air for six more (again, including Picture and Director). It seemed only a matter of time before Reitman would be collecting statuettes on his shelf.
Five years later, that possibility seems considerably more remote. Reitman’s fourth film, Young Adult, wasn’t bad, but it felt incomplete, the first draft of what might have been a very good movie had it been nurtured more fully. His next movie, Labor Day, released earlier this year, was an almost unfathomable disaster, a mawkish, cloying valentine to the improbably entwined joys of making pies and harboring fugitives.
Which brings us to Reitman’s new feature, Men, Women & Children, based on the eponymous novel by Chad Kultgen. Though not as awful as Labor Day, it is to some degree even more dispiriting. While the former movie could be set aside as an ill-advised experiment—the deployment of an acerbic directorial sensibility on Hallmark-level source material—the latter finds Reitman back in his presumed wheelhouse, but having lost control of his vessel. Like Juno and Up in the Air, Reitman’s new film is a contemporary comedy-drama with a strong undercurrent of How We Live Now. Unlike those pictures, it is a near-total misfire, by turns sour, preachy, facile, and pretentious.
The movie tells the interwoven tales of close to a dozen suburban parents and high-schoolers, united by the common themes of sex, alienation, and the Internet—a kind of techno-misanthropic Love Actually. Try to follow along as best you can. Don (Adam Sandler) and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a married couple deep in the sexual doldrums: He cruises porn on their son’s computer, his own having become irretrievably infected with malware; she and he will both pursue extramarital dalliances online—her, through the cheating site Ashley Madison, him via an escort service. Their son, Chris (Travis Tope), is also addicted to Internet porn, to such a degree that he is unable to respond sexually to the aggressive advances of vixen-y sophomore cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah is herself an aspiring actress whose single mother, Joan (Judy Greer), is promoting the girl's career—and pocketing some cash on the side—by publishing racy “private photo sessions” of Hannah for pervy subscribers to her website. Joan becomes involved with Kent (Dean Norris), a father whose wife abandoned him to run off to California with another man.
Still with me? Deep breath:
Kent’s son, Tim (Ansel Elgort), reeling from his parents’ breakup, has quit his starring role on the football team, withdrawn into his room, and devoted his waking hours to the online fantasy game Guild Wars. Tim’s only real-life connection is a tentative quasi-romance with classmate Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose paranoid helicopter mom, Patricia (Jennifer Garner) monitors her every virtual interaction—phone, email, Facebook, browser history—with a line-crossing avidity befitting the director of the NSA. Rounding out the digital horror show is the virginal Allison (Elena Kampouris), an anorexic who gets nutrition tips from a site called www.prettybitchesnevereat.com and who desperately wants to hook up with a jock so telegraphically sleazy that he might as well have “sex offender” sewn across his varsity jacket. Finally, we have J. K. Simmons, who makes a token appearance as Allison’s dad, his only meaningful function being to reprise his Juno role as the Dad Who Finds Out His Underage Daughter Got Pregnant. I genuinely do not comprehend this final casting touch. It has the shape of an inside joke but—and I probably don’t need to point this out—it isn’t funny.
Reitman has claimed that Men, Women & Children is not about the impact of technology, but I hope the summary above captures why I’m inclined to believe my own lying eyes. That said, there’s no reason why a movie exploring these themes couldn’t succeed, if it were only to treat its subject matter with more subtlety than a chimp handling American Tourister luggage. It’s a hurdle that Reitman’s film resolutely declines to clear.
Take the relationship between the Sandler and DeWitt characters. Although one of the most fully fleshed-out of Reitman’s many scenarios, it remains shallow and under-motivated. The film takes pains to note that their sex life was dynamic enough that, as young parents, they were getting it on “before work” when the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11—a detail equal parts tasteless and improbable. Now, by contrast, they almost never have sex and when they do, “perfunctory” would be a charitable description. What has happened to their marriage to drive them both to technology-assisted infidelity? The only answer the movie offers is an implicit one: technology itself. In a scene that otherwise serves no clear purpose, we watch as the unhappily married couple lie next to each other in bed, both on their iPads. Maybe this scene would make narrative sense if they were both chatting or texting (see? even when they’re together, they’d rather be talking with someone else). Instead, he’s reading and she’s playing a word game. Replace the iPads with a book and a newspaper, and you have what for decades has been shorthand for marital bliss: lazing together with a novel and a crossword. Damned iPads!
There are times when the film complicates this Luddite portrait somewhat, acknowledging that technology offers opportunities for connection as well as alienation. But they are overwhelmed by the tidal wave of porn browsing and video-game addiction, anorexia enablement and child exploitation, online cheating and online spying. This is a movie to see if you’re giving serious thought to becoming Amish.
The cast is a terrific one, and several members rise above the material on occasion. It’s a considerable surprise to be reminded that Sandler can be a subtle performer, and no surprise at all to be reminded the same of DeWitt. Greer is, as usual, a welcome presence, in particular in her scenes with Norris (Breaking Bad’s Hank), who is himself flat-out terrific. Garner does what she can as the Snooping Mom from Hell, but ultimately it’s not much. The role is like a caricature of her performance in Juno, minus the ultimate (and essential) redemption.
Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about Men, Women & Children is that it was directed by the same man responsible for Juno. Reitman’s earlier film took serious questions and explored them in a manner at once humane, generous, and extremely funny. His latest, by contrast, despite a number of overlapping themes, comes across as pinched, judgmental, and almost relentlessly bleak.
But wait! Not all hope is lost. The signature device of Men, Women & Children—at least apart from the gimmick of projecting characters’ emails texts as bubbles above their heads, which would probably have been witty and original a decade ago—is an omniscient voiceover by Emma Thompson, who is simultaneously chronicling the departure of the Voyager space probe from our solar system (technology!) and the sexual peccadillos of us Earthlings left behind. It’s a tedious mix of the low-brow and the high. We’re meant to find it hilarious when Thompson’s proper British diction is set to the task of discussing “titty fucking cum queens” and the size of Adam Sandler’s penis. And we’re meant (I think) to be reassured when she offers up dull platitudes about how tiny the Earth is relative to the vastness of space. (There are quite a few references to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.) So buck up, moviegoers. Maybe we are all destined for atomized existences, for empty sex and loveless marriages and ugly hookups and suicide attempts. (Did I forget to mention that one?) Rest assured, at least, that when viewed from the vantage of all cosmic creation, none of it really matters.