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.”