“Men, Women & Children” believes it is more than it is. It thinks it is saying something important. It strives to be a commentary on texting and social media and how these forms of communication have taken the place of real human interactions. But with that as its goal, it fails, and fails boringly so. Directed by Jason Reitman, based on Chad Kultgen‘s novel, with screenplay by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson, “Men, Women & Children is merely a series of never-ending vignettes about families, parental relationships, husbands and wives and young love. Some vignettes are amusing, some poignant and others mean-spirited. “Men, Women & Children’s” cast totally outshines its script. In this nearly two-hour long movie, thankfully we are treated to some terrific acting.
Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt portray Don and Helen Truby. Both seem utterly bored in their marriage and rather than confront each other about what might be wrong, explore other opportunities separately to add some excitement in their lives. Please tell me how this is the fault of the Internet or social media? These two are close to middle-age…when talking is still common. As ridiculous as this scenario is, the two actors are extremely good. Sandler presents a side we rarely see in his acting…vulnerability without schmaltz…and he’s wonderful. DeWitt is more known for her work on “Mad Men,” so “Men, Women & Children” gives her a chance to shine on the big screen. Interspersed with Don’s and Helen’s story is that of their son, Chris (Travis Tope). Don discovers that Chris has been surfing the Internet for porn. While this might be normal, it is getting in the way of Chris’ interactions with the opposite sex. Tope provides an excellent portrayal of a young male concerned and confused about what’s expected of him as a man.
Dean Norris and Ansel Elgort both turn in great performances as father and son, Kent and Tim Mooney, respectively. Their lives have been turned upside down by divorce. Tim is a sensitive soul who quits the football team…something no one can understand…and turns instead to video games and a new romance with classmate Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever). We’re used to seeing Norris as the bullying menace, so it’s extremely refreshing to watch his sympathetic performance as a father truly perplexed by the change in his son and as a man treading very lightly into the dating world. Elgort is just fabulous as the teen who’s been hurt so badly in ways he can’t explain. His story, in fact, is at the movie’s heart. Elgort and Dever have amazing chemistry together and their new relationship seems very genuine in its sweetly hesitant start. With his performance in “Men, Women & Children,” Elgort proves his heart-breaking work in “The Fault in Our Stars” was no fluke. And as his love interest, Kaitlyn Dever is very much his equal. Dever’s character, Brandy, has her own problems. Her mother, Patricia, an unsmiling Jennifer Garner, monitors her email, texts and Internet activity to the exclusion of almost everything else in her life. We never learn why Patricia is this way so we’re left with the usually terrific Garner giving a dour, one-note performance.
There are there other stories going on within the film. One deals with the bullying of an overly thin teen girl, Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), which results in soap opera-like, dramatic complications. Another story has more layers. A mother, Joan (Judy Greer), and daughter, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), excessively invest themselves in Hannah’s potential modeling/acting career by posting questionable photos of Hannah on the Internet, not realizing the inherent threat to that career and other relationships. All three of these actresses are quite good in rather creepy roles.
So many amazing performances in plots relating so little to the dangers of the over-use and substitution of texting, emailing, social media and the Internet in general for that of in-person communication. This is a topic that can certainly be explored, but this film isn’t the one to do it. And what to make of Emma Thompson’s voice-over? Throughout the film we see shots of the moon, stars and universe, and hear her speaking some kind of mumbo jumbo meant to be inspiring and thought-provoking, one presumes.
“Men, Women & Children” is truly disappointing. Its wonderful performances deserve so much more.