Jason Reitman’s most recent cinematic endeavor is a risky, ambitious effort that has been greeted with much criticism. Is this a social commentary that just fails to connect with audiences or has the two-time Oscar-nominated director made something that is just simply misunderstood?
The issues with “Men, Women, and Children” are clear. There is a large amount of characters, all involved in their own individual stories. The stories do intertwine at certain points, but this still is a movie about multiple characters and their own struggles, no one giant arching story.
Taking the time to explain every single character and story within this movie is unnecessary, all you need to know is that there are a lot of both and they create slight confusion for audiences.
The issue with the amount of stories is that, as the movie trucks along, some stories are left behind and the audience forgets about them. When those stories eventually come back, it can be slightly jarring. The film does not progress as smoothly as it could. With a running time of 119 minutes, an extra 15-20 minutes could of helped create a much more smooth structure.
An example of how Reitman could of benefited with more time is in a story that follows Don and Helen Truby—who are played wonderfully by Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt— an aging married couple who are turning to online websites in order to set up their own separate marital affairs. The positives of their story is that there is a properly communicated theme on how the digital revolution has created a communication rift amongst us. The infidelity and need to feel desired between the couple is known, but never discussed between them. This truly does create captivating cinema, but the negative of their story is that we never see how these characters got to where they are. We see their separation of intimacy, but knowing the reason for it would create a much deeper connection with the characters.
One of the strong themes of the story is the parenting styles of each family in the movie. Donna, who is performed to a tee by Judy Greer, runs a website to help promote her daughter’s acting/modeling career, but the website eventually takes a dive into the very “suggestive” and debatably pornographic. Within this story, you have a mother who is much too open minded. She knows what she is doing is wrong, but she stays with it because she hopes that it will eventually bring her daughter happiness from success.
To contrast that story, Jennifer Garner puts in a frustratingly good performance as Patricia, who keeps an overbearing eye over everything that her daughter does. This included receiving copies of all her text messages and reviewing her browser history and Facebook conversations. She even has a tracker on her phone, so she knows where her daughter is at all times. There are moments where the audience can see her hesitance to continue these parenting decisions, but her worries run strong and she sticks with it.
In the middle of these contrasting parenting styles is Kent (Dean Norris), whose wife has recently left for California and his son has quit football, now putting more time into his online computer games than anything else. We often see this story where the father beats the son and tells him that he is “throwing his life away,” but Norris turns in a surprisingly sympathetic performance as the father who feels that his son may be going through more than just an absence of love of the game.
The diversity of parenting styles is key for the success of this film because each child suffers from their parenting, but each benefits as well. Greer’s Donna has the best relationship with her daughter, but her lack of rules have created a low moral fiber and allowed her to live recklessly. Garner’s Patricia has the biggest rift with her child and her daughter often sneaks off, but she is the child who is in the least danger and has the brightest personality because of it. Norris’ Kent decision to “play the middle” benefits because there is no sense of rebellion or recklessness, but there isn’t much of a connection between them either. His son is experiencing depression and Kent senses hints of it, but refuses to reach out.
There is no doubt that “Men, Women, and Children” could be much more. With slight adjustments to the script, this could be an Oscar-worthy cinematic experience. With it’s type of stories, it had potential to be the American Beauty of the digital age.
It isn’t that, but there is still plenty to enjoy about this film. While the balance of stories comes off as inconsistent, each story is engaging. Audiences will and should feel exhausted after watching because each story offers something that will either frustrate or crush you. These are worthy emotions because they keep you invested in the characters.
“Men, Women, and Children” may not be what everyone is wanting or expecting, but investment in characters and even a hint of sympathy is always the formula of a good picture.