Five years ago, Jason Reitman's Up in the Air was released to rave reviews, a slew of Oscar nominations, and box-office success. Critics praised it as a timely, heartfelt work that tapped into anxiety about the ongoing recession and the wave of unemployment beleaguering the nation. Now, though, he's released his sixth film, Men, Women & Children, and it looks to be his worst-received yet, which is saying something after the critical drubbing his last effort, romantic melodrama Labor Day, got in 2013.
Pretty much every filmmaker has to contend with bad reviews at some point, but the distressing implication in this case is that Reitman has lost whatever human touch he used to possess. Men, Women & Children is "obvious and mundane, 'Chopsticks' pounded on the piano," writes Amy Nicholson in The Village Voice. "And it doesn't feel like the work of Jason Reitman, who made a sterling debut with a string of smart comedies." The Atlantic's Christopher Orr calls it "a near-total misfire, by turns sour, preachy, facile, and pretentious." Where Thank You for Smoking and especially Juno and Up in the Air broadly connected with audiences and critics, Men, Women & Children is being lambasted as a tone-deaf piece of cultural commentary, hysterically decrying addictions to screens and social networking as an existential crisis for middle-class America.
Would Reitman be under fire if Men, Women & Children wasn't so needlessly hectoring? Or is there an unavoidable target on his back that comes with being an acclaimed young filmmaker? Reitman was Oscar-nominated for directing two of his first three films (Juno and Up in the Air), a nearly unheard-of achievement, and largely skated by any charge of being "overrated" (Juno took some flak for its smart-aleck dialogue, but that fell at the feet of screenwriter Diablo Cody). His fourth film, Young Adult, also written by Cody, was an acidic story that was well-reviewed and found a niche audience. On its own, Labor Day (a disastrously campy escaped-convict-meets-repressed-housewife yarn) could simply be dismissed as a blip. But with Men, Women & Children, Reitman's career seems to be developing a worrying trend. He’s taking his material far too seriously and has lost sight of the humor and humanity of his earlier works.
The most obvious comparison for "wunderkind gone sour" in recent memory is M. Night Shyamalan, who was Oscar-nominated at 29 for making The Sixth Sense (the second highest-grossing movie of 1999) but hasn't directed a remotely well-received film since 2002's Signs. In retrospect, that film hinted at the hubris that would befoul his later efforts. He inexplicably cast himself in a crucial role and his famed skill for endings suddenly vanished (alien invaders of a watery planet have a critical weakness against water). Two films later, The Lady in the Water saw Shyamalan casting himself as a writer destined to create great works of literature; that and every subsequent effort have been laughed out of theaters by critics.
Shyamalan now appears to be attempting a "return to his roots" with a low-budget horror movie. The problem for Reitman is that he can’t attempt the same. His model has been remarkably consistent—when he’s not directing Cody’s screenplays, he’s adapting a contemporary novel and injecting some visual verve and a carefully curated soundtrack. The problem can’t entirely be chalked up to the source material, since Up in the Air could have taken an equally dour tack (it’s about a lonely man whose job is firing people) but managed to find warmth for its characters even as George Clooney told angry, sobbing employees they were losing their jobs. Men, Women & Children lacks that humanity—most of its big ensemble come off as storytelling cyphers to essay some blindingly obvious point, like “middle-aged married couples can get sexually restless” or “young people sometimes use video games to escape real life.”
The other thing that separates Reitman from Shyamalan is his self-awareness. He was candid in a recent interview with ScreenCrush’s Mike Ryan about the failure of Labor Day, saying he was well-aware of his golden streak with critics being broken. “It’s shitty as hell. It’s totally shitty,” he said. “I mean, I was proud of my Tomato Rating and, yeah, it sucked … I’ve done more work on that movie than I’ve ever done on a movie. I’m proud of it. And then it doesn’t land and then you realize, oh, this was a misguided effort, for whatever reason.”
Reitman could figure things out and rise again; Hollywood is littered with just as many surprise comebacks as it is with stories of faded superstars. But his is still a fascinating cautionary tale. Even when sticking close to his personal brand (he says in that interview that Men, Women & Children is “more in my natural voice”) he seems to have lost the finesse that distinguished his earlier films. Consider Bennett Miller, another classic wunderkind (although one who got started at a later age—his debut fiction film Capote came out when he was 39). He has so far followed a very specific formula, making somewhat chilly biopics that semi-fictionally expound upon the internal lives of real-life figures—Truman Capote and, in Moneyball, Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. This year he has Foxcatcher, which is about the crazy-but-true John du Pont saga, and it’s getting raves consistent with his previous work.
Would things change drastically if Miller left his comfort zone, as Reitman did with Labor Day? Maybe. But in Men, Women & Children, I would argue Reitman committed the more fundamental hubristic error of thinking himself a great social commentator. Only Up in the Air really felt like it had something sweeping to say about the state of our nation, and it did it by telling a personal story. By contrast, Men, Women & Children explicitly criticizes people for having their heads in their phones, but forgets to ground the story in anything relatable. Reitman is largely sticking to his formula, but would be well-served to narrow his focus next time on to characters anyone can actually care about.