Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: Adam Sandler, Rosemary DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Jennifer Garner, Ansel Elgort, Travis Tope, Olivia Crociccha, Elena Camporis and the voice of Emma Thompson
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Date: December 5th
As we’re sure you know; the internet is more than just a portal on which to read insightful and witty film reviews. It’s a broad, ubiquitous presence; an infinite, ever-expanding library of content that’s changed our lives irrevocably. Such a phenomenon would be virtually impossible to encapsulate in a two-hour film, but the makers of Men, Women and Children have decided to have a stab at it. The results are not successful.
This is an ensemble drama about life in the information age. Don Truby (Adam Sandler wearing a beard because comedians grow beards for drama) is a suburban dad and porn addict who will soon consider prostitutes. His wife Helen (Rosemary DeWitt) is bored and unfulfilled so finds a man to have an affair with online. Their son Chris (Travis Tope) is addicted to porn too. Meanwhile a pushy stage mom Donna (Judy Greer) is publishing pictures of her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crociccha) on a homemade site. Another teenager, Alison (Elena Camporis) is making friends online who nurture her anorexia, while another teen, Tim (Ansel Elgort) has abandoned football for an online game. Jennifer Garner turns up as an overprotective mother who monitors her daughter’s every keystroke.
I disliked this film for many reasons. It’s preachy and panicking, but paints a one-sided, uninformed view of its villain (the internet) with details that make it feel out of date already: It mentions a couple getting cell phones after 9/11, but surely they should’ve had them long before then? There’s a scene early in the film where Don’s computer doesn’t work so he surfs on his son’s PC for porn. Why? Don has a smartphone and a tablet, so why does he need his son’s PC? It’s probably because the scene was written years ago in the source book (prior to tablets and smart phones) and the filmmakers didn’t bother updating it.
There are so many benefits of the internet, especially for adolescents, but you wouldn’t know it from this film. The internet helps young people discover they’re not alone, whether they’re gay, growing up in harsh conservative settings, shy and isolated in school, or just have other (often more advanced) interests than their peers. 2015 is expected to be a pivotal year for the teen online entrepreneur, for instance. None of this is mentioned in this film.
Yes, some teens are over-sexualised and over-exposed to porn because of the internet and that is a problem, but I suspect this film is not representative. It’s not news to say that teens are having sex, but it’s a little outrageous to argue that none of them enjoy it.
Its view of gaming is even worse. We know that the film disapproves of Tim playing a World of Warcraft-type game (here called “The Guild”) but the film seems utterly uninterested in why he plays it in the first place. Also, his football teammates are such contemptible bastards, that maybe it’s not such a bad thing that he makes new friends online? And the film argues that it’s bad that he doesn’t hang out with his father like he used to, but aren’t teens supposed to drift from their parents?
Emma Thompson is an odd choice for a voiceover. I think her English accent is supposed to make it classy (along with her Carl Sagan references), and sometimes she’s going for dry wit, but it doesn’t work: Vulgar expressions in a plumy voice aren’t inherently funny, and the voiceover is often intrusive and obvious. Apart from those brief attempts at humour, it’s an utterly joyless film.
For the most part I understood what it was trying to say, but Garner’s character raises some questions: She’s overprotective and won’t let her daughter just be a teen, but the film sides with Garner’s character. So I think that she’s supposed to be the voice of reason locked within a crazy person, like Veronica Cartwright in The Witches of Eastwick. Maybe she’s also there to raise the alarmist pitch even further, as if to say “no matter what you do, you can’t stem the tide and meddling only makes it worse”.
The subject of online porn and the effect it has on one’s psyche has already been explored quite effectively in Don Jon, World’s Greatest Dad and (to a lesser extent) Shame, but with Men, Women and Children director Jason Reitman has bitten off more than he can chew, with too many characters to skim over and a (ahem) shaky grasp of sex in the internet age.
Reitman is talented and, to be fair, he gets great performances from all of the teens. Special praise should go to mousy Elena Camporis and understated Ansel Elgort. Reitman also has an eye for detail that emerges in the analogue scenes; like the awful hotel bar with its plush leather furniture at odds with its neon beer signs and football game on a big screen. He’s made some terrific films in the past (Juno, Up in the Air and especially Young Adult) so I’m sure he’ll return to form sometime.
There’s a meaty, important discussion to be had regarding the net and its influence on us, but this film isn’t it. Men, Women and Children might be shrill, one-dimensional and out of touch, but it’s trying to say so much that it’s never boring – a fascinating disaster.