Jason Reitman‘s last directorial effort, “Labor Day,” seemed too sweetly sentimental and slipshod to work. It was a tale of love and past pain that aimed for Douglas Sirk emotions but instead slumped into a mess of Harlequin Romance plotlines, designed to be swallowed like rice pudding, with no chewing required or tough bits to choke on.
Remarkably, “Men, Women & Children” comes off as even more of a misfire. This time, Reitman gives us a drab, grim fizzle of a drama — pulled from the headlines, if by “the headlines” you mean a Reader’s Digest from 2002 — based on Chad Kultgen’s novel of the same name. Co-written by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson, Reitman’s latest is a too-ambitious, too-serious trudge of a film about a group of Texans trying with great difficulty to live, lust and love in the age of the internet and the cell phone.
There’s something under all of this melodrama, though, big thematic questions obscured by the tissue-thin skin of Reitman’s contrived and phony story: What is it you’re missing when you’re busy looking at the phone? Paraphrasing Slavoj Zizek on the cinema, internet pornography and always-on communications have not only taught us what to desire, but also how to desire; every character here is so overstimulated they’ve become numb, so jaded that even instant gratification takes too long.
But all these big ideas and social concepts and points of discussion, certainly worthy of exploration in a good film, are buried in a script so clumsy and clueless it might well have been typed by someone wearing boxing gloves. Early in the film, Don Truby (Adam Sandler) and his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are in bed on separate iPads; Reitman shows us how they’re both playing Words with Friends, against each other. She, who will later note on affair-enabling website AshleyMadison.com that she wants “to feel desired again,” plays “gaze”; he, who will later take up with a nubile escort, counters with “sag.”
The whole film plays like that exchange: Too blunt to be clever, and too obvious to be funny. Like Winslet’s awful overacting in “Labor Day,” it’s the cinematic equivalent of a driver putting on his signals a mile before his turn because he’s so deathly concerned you aren’t paying attention. There’s also a shot of Joan Clint (Judy Greer) being told her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) is being rejected by a reality show for the “unsavory” photos on her modeling site, a modeling site that Joan herself administrates, while at the grocery store; the MEAT sign behind her is laughably on-the-nose.
There are a host of other mistakes and mishaps as well; the narration, switching between the earthbound concerns of our characters and the lonely Voyager probe, shooting into the dark and bearing all our hopes and vanities into the void. The authorial voice of the narration isn’t problematic; the literal voice — a too-familiar, too-brisk Emma Thompson, turning abstract observations into chilly, arch judgments — is much more ruinous.
If it sounds like this review is only scratching at the surfaces of Reitman’s film, it’s because, frankly, surface is about all it has to offer; the film’s use of Carl Sagan’s essay “Little Blue Dot,” about our cosmic insignificance, is intended to add a note of grandeur and scale to the character’s earthly couplings and betrayals, but it simply feels like a too-long quotation meant to pad the word-count of a late-submitted essay. Reitman clearly wants to get at something human in his films — connection, family, humanity — but he lacks the artistic tools to explore those things; a man stabbing at the stony soil of an archaeological dig with only a Q-tip to uncover its wonders.
Cinematographer Eric Steelberg works well with Reitman’s shades of suburbia, fuzzy-looking scenes from life that occasionally have texts, web pages and more put over them in crisp clarity. All the performers flail, given little, but Greer and Dean Norris do the most with the script’s thin gruel. Jennifer Garner. as a caricature of an overprotective mother (“Let me give you some pamphlets on the danger of selfies,” she coos) is wasted; Sandler, venturing out of his lucrative comfort zone of friendly collaborators, product placement and fart jokes, looks mostly confused and sleepy.
One plotline. the tentative romance between Garner’s daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Denver) and Norris’ son, sad ex-football star Tim (Ansel Elgort), is actually well-crafted, a tribute far more to Elgort and Denver than it is to the blandly hysterical script. The fact that Brandy and Tim are the only characters who are characters — not just cutouts being pushed through a cautionary tale by Reitman’s clumsy hand — also makes the film watchable when they’re on-screen.
Reitman clearly wanted to create a mosaic of sharp-edged shards held together by the mortar of art; with “Men, Women and Children,” what he’s delivered is a group of broken bits mired in the morass of pretension.