Jason Reitman is a master of mild, quirky character-driven movies. He’s the man who brought us Thank You For Smoking, Up In the Air, Young Adult and Juno. He’s got a talent for making us feel things with quiet wit and a killer soundtrack. What he is apparently NOT a master of is overarching self-importance as delivered via a seemingly unending production line of unlikable, unrelatable, flat-out boring characters. At least, that’s the impression gleaned from his latest film, Men, Women and Children. Maybe he just needs another go at it to really make the insufferable self-righteous blandness stick.
First, let’s meet our small army of characters. There’s the overbearing, overprotective mother (Jennifer Garner) who monitors her daughter’s (Justified’s Kaitlyn Dever) every text and tweet. There’s the underprotective mother (Judy Greer) who takes borderline pornographic photos of her teen daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) with the severely misguided intention of jump-starting an acting career. There’s the couple (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler) who no longer wants to bone each other, but find themselves simultaneously secretly intrigued by an Ashley Madison commercial; and their teenage son, who at 15(ish) has fallen so far down the rabbit hole of BDSM internet porn that he can no longer get aroused without stern camgirls shouting out orders, not even with IRL contact with the aforementioned aspiring actress/unintentional perv bait. And don’t forget the newly single/recently abandoned father (Dean Norris) of the high school football star-turned-MMORPG-obsessed new secret boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) to Jennifer Garner’s scrutinized daughter. And then there’s— oh my god, never mind, that’s really way more than enough. Aren’t you bored? I’m so bored. If you were to make a family tree of these characters’ interactions, it would be complex and color coded and very, very boring.
With such an overpacked house, each character is relegated to what is essentially a small vignette, interspersed with Emma Thompson waxing poetic about Carl Sagan and the Voyager 1 and space and time and big important things, to constantly remind us all how very infinitesimal we really are. Which, of course, only strives to then make us rebel against this imposed lack of meaning and place importance on everything in sight. And this is the ultimate problem with Men, Women and Children. It wants us to feel so many things, and it wants us to feel them so fully. Like re-reading your high school poetry, there is an embarrassing amount of heart and a laughable lack of self-awareness. Or subtlety. Besides our central teen couple who serve only to exist in their pure young love, highlighting the disconnected flaws in every other character, Dean Norris comes the closest to having an actual nuanced character arc. Well, arc may be too strong a term. Multiple sporadic points on some sort of unexplored graph, maybe. Even he, though, falls into what every character stands in for: a personified cautionary tale. Because the internet is evil. So don’t let your children use it. But worrying is also destructive. And then no one will love you. The whole movie is one hair’s breadth away from an extended after-school special on the dangers of everything. And that stopping short is only because of all the implied sexiness and porn included in the movie. So, really, it’s one neatly trimmed pubic hair away from being a Lifetime original. For a movie that wants to be SO MUCH, to make you feel so many things and have all the epiphanies, it has no idea how to actually make you care about anything.