Jason Reitman is among the most intuitive and insightful directors of his generation. One by one, his movies delve into the heart of a person, a situation, a phenomenon with which people perhaps may be uncomfortable, and they always leave the viewers walking away truly thinking more deeply about the reality just presented to them. His thoughtful filmmaking is much appreciated in a landscape wrought with filler fluff and superhero overload, and even upon many repeat viewings, movies like Juno, Up in the Air, and the particularly brilliant Young Adult resonate time and time again, in their ability to really make one think about the issues explored within them.
Men, Women & Children is not the supreme gem among Reitman’s canon, but it surely adds layers to his already impressive career. Taking aim at the communication dissonance in our current age, the film seeks to answer the growing reality of the ways in which technology ostensibly intended to bring people closer together, has in reality drawn them more distantly apart. The enveloping reality of the Internet, cell phones, texts, calls, instant messenger apps, dating apps, hook-up apps, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, iPads, e-mails, e-readers, etc., all of which being only the beginning of the list, have led to a kind of virtual reality that leads one to question nearly everything about oneself. In just one example, if a photo can be made to show no imperfections, one can only long to then be apart of that “lie” that the photo has become. What then is that photo used for? Seduction? Profit? To incite jealousy in others? And there exists the instantaneous possibility of disseminating said photo to not only one’s immediate world of Facebook friends and other online connections, but the world at large again through the all-encompassing, and at times, immuring Internet.
Playing a very particular role to the film’s subject matter and characters is the way in which Internet pornography plays a distinct and highly influential role in shaping 21st century lives.
All of the factors presented, and the characters herein, are not done so in a judgmental fashion. Reitman does have his angle, as would anyone else, but the characters are very much presented for who they are written to be, rather than who they are seemingly supposed to invoke the audience to see them as.
Don Truby (Adam Sandler, reminding us why he is a good actor—a fact called into question over his many poor role choices in recent years) and Helen Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a married couple who have beyond lost the spark, and simply settled into the malaise of unfulfilled cohabitation. Scenes of them listlessly looking up from their iPad screens as they lie reading in bed makes one wonder why these two were ever together in the first place. Helen actively seeks out an affair online and Don engages in sexual liaisons with prostitutes. When they find out about each other’s infidelity, Don is embittered to the point of asking “is it even worth fighting for?” The pain of their situation is palpable.
Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) plays a mother for whom the word “overprotective” is a vast understatement. She disallows her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) any kind of digital freedom, and she keenly watches over her every move. At the end of every day she goes through all of Brandy’s activity online; she monitors all of her messaging: texts, Facebook, or otherwise; and she even deletes certain messages before her daughter sees them (somehow tracking/re-routing them to go to her own phone for viewing often before Brandy even sees them). This blatant mistrust and breach of personal freedom is a violation so intoxicating, that it poisons the relationship between mother and daughter. True, there are predators out there, hunting their teenage prey, but nearly anyone of sound mind would agree that Patricia’s actions go beyond the level of caring concern and into the range of obsessive control freak.
What is more, her concern could not be more misplaced. Of all the freakish characters and character traits portrayed throughout the film, Brandy Beltmeyer is the least outlandish of the lot. She and her love interest Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort) present the one storyline herein where there is a genuine connection between people, due predominantly to the offline time spent with each other, where Tim and Brandy are able to actually connect as human beings. But it is important to note that this is not entirely berating their online life. Brandy has a secret Tumblr account, where she posts poems and pictures and other expressions of her angst-ridden teenage existence, an account which, (most importantly), her mother doesn’t know about. It’s the one online forum in which Brandy can feel safe to express herself, and in meeting Tim, share with another person all the many feelings she goes through as a teenage girl, including the tender, genuine ones she begins to develop for him.
In turn, Tim treats Brandy with kindness, as he is also grateful to have found a kindred spirit, through the dark times of his high school experience. His parents are divorced, and he learns of his mother’s recent engagement to re-marry through impersonally seeing it on her Facebook page. Tossed into a tailspin of emotion over the news, he turns to his online comfort, which is the other gamers in the online video-gaming world with whom he chats as he spends much of his hours and days outside of school, enveloped in the world of his online video game. Contrary to the football star his dad wanted him to be, Tim’s only interest, before meeting and falling for Brandy, is his online game.
Kent Mooney (Dean Norris), Tim’s dad, is lost in the depression in which his ex-wife left him and his son, but he tries his best to go on and live his life, and somehow find ways to connect with Tim, as well as others around him. He eventually meets and pursues a woman named Donna Clint (Judy Greer, further establishing herself herein after many, many supporting roles throughout the years, as one willing and capable of portraying profound, fully-realized people on screen; Greer receives neither the respect in Hollywood nor accolades for her talent that she deserves).
Donna is a very interesting character, who on the one hand comes across as vapid and exploitative, in particular of her daughter, the immature and even more vapid Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). Donna sells provocative pictures on the Internet of Hannah, ostensibly in pursuit of a career in show business, the career Donna herself never really successfully had. On the other hand, Donna is a mother like any other, just trying to figure out how to raise her daughter in the best way possible, and doing so as a single parent. Therefore when she and Kent start dating, there is tentative hope on the part of viewer than these two broken people can somehow be made whole with and by one another.
Hannah’s boy toy Chris Truby (Travis Tope), Don and Helen Truby’s son, is infatuated with Hannah’s outright ostentatious sexuality and garrulous talk of it, but between the sexting and the actual flirtation—and the myriads of times he is displayed viewing Internet pornography—when it comes down to their actually becoming intimate with one another, he is unable to perform properly, and is shown to be (as children of high school age are by the very nature of human brain development) ill equipped mentally or emotionally for the many powerful factors that come into play when one engages in sexual intercourse. This is not a judgment of people who have sex in high school, nor is it true that absolutely no one is “ready” by whatever barometer they choose to rate themselves. But rather it is a fact that the human brain is not fully developed at this age, and there are consequences to people’s actions, especially when children are overly-sexualized too young.
More moral quandaries are presented in the teenage character Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), whose battle with anorexia is touched upon amidst other pressures facing her, such as the intense coercion she feels by the people and society around her to have sex. She loses her virginity whilst hanging out with some friends, to some guy she doesn’t know very well at all, and then returns to the room where everyone else is, looking sick (and frankly dying of starvation). It’s a harrowing scene, yet purposefully, painstakingly shown as “not that big of a deal” the way that she wishes beyond all telling she could possibly make it feel, despite the reality of it being a very big deal indeed.
There is redemption to be found for some of these characters; for others such a hopeful outcome appears further out of reach, due either to choices they have made or circumstances in which they find themselves. Either way, Reitman has very deliberately drawn the characters and particularly chosen the stories about them he wishes to tell. Every action and word is imbued with a sense that it’s what’s meant to be said or presented.
The film is not perfect, and the pacing at times can draw out certain blander moments while leaving other (oftentimes seemingly more important) moments cut short. But overall it is a success, as it brings troublesome content to the forefront, and it really makes the viewer think about the ways in which technology has benefited us, and more disturbingly, the ways in which it has drawn us all apart, at times heartbreakingly so.
It is careful to not send the message that “all you need to do is throw away your phone and computer and life will be grand.” Nothing is that simple, nor is that sentiment a true reality. But it merely posits the possibility that stepping back and re-evaluating the ways in which these many developments of our age affect us, and any time we humans are asked to really ponder something, and the reason for its existence or the reasons truths about it may or may not be so, well, that can hardly be seen as an unimportant task. Reflection is beneficial to understanding.
Now, if only Reitman would appreciate the value and importance of the Oxford comma….