According to Men, Women & Children, it’s time we turned our attention to technology and the internet and make a note of how much we’ve allowed these advances and devices to influence or dictate how we act, how we live and how we treat each other. This is presented as one of the topical problems of the modern day but perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that it forgets that technology exists to supplement life and so it paints a portrait of a world so utterly absorbed by a series of screens that its participants are unwilling to consider simply talking to each other.
Narrated by Emma Thompson, Men, Women & Children is one of those interweaving narratives with about a million characters and nowhere near enough time to give any of them their due. Each of these characters is in some manner conflicted about the way they use technology in today’s world, it includes Adam Sandler as a husband considering an online escort service to stray from his marriage. His son, a chronic masturbator desensitized by pornography, struggles to maintain an erection which leads him to root out the most socially unacceptable smut in order to orgasm. Meanwhile on the football team his ex-teammate, (Ansel Elgort), recently quit playing only to spend his time playing computer games as he struggles to cope with his mother abandoning his father (Dean Norris) as they now only hear from her via half baked Facebook status updates. But that’s okay because this father is starting a new relationship with Judy Greer’s single mom who has dedicated an awkwardly provocative portfolio website to her daughter’s modelling career. This daughter, is trying to seduce the chronic masturbating son of Adam Sandler via text messaging and this is literally only about half of the stories on display. If you were willing to bet that all of these characters and stories were tied together by a series of cloying and scarcely believable melodramatic nonsense then perhaps you should avoid Men, Women & Children because you’ve already imagined most of what there is to see.
It’s something as a shame, too, because the ensemble cast – which also includes Dennis Haysbert, Jennifer Garner and an all too brief turn by J.K. Simmons – are all pretty fantastic. Elgort reprises all the presence that made him so engaging in The Fault in Our Stars earlier this year, now with a clumsy twist to his charm and Sandler does his entire career a disservice by reminding us (like in Punch Drunk Love) that when he wants to be, he can be a really, really strong actor; why he doesn’t take more serious roles has been a question among most critics for years and now the only question will be why didn’t he pick such a role in a stronger movie with the capacity to make more use of his underutilised dramatic chops. Garner brings enough pathos to what is basically a exaggerated Machiavellian technophobe to stop just short of being comically absurd, although some of her lines are easily the funniest lines of the year. The only performance that sticks out negatively is that of Thompson’s narrator and the fault lies not with Thompson herself (who was used in a similar capacity but much better effect in Stranger Than Fiction) but with the script for shoehorning in an unnecessary voice-over in order to clumsily spell out the themes of the story in what might be the flattest ending of the year.
In addition, the film has some great style with a nice moody soundtrack that almost feels ambient at times and some fun uses of recognisable operating system interfaces being displayed alongside the action ‘in the world’ so as to not rely on constant cuts to phones and monitors and so on. It’s the sort of visual flair that people will take or leave but for a film with this content, there are far worse ways to handle these messages. (Editor’s Note: Even that isn’t original, it was used in the much better film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty last year).
It’s an old adage in Hollywood that it’s better to show than to tell but that isn’t the case here. When Men, Women & Children truly shines is when the characters finally tear down the virtual facade that they’ve been relying on to shield them from the real world and actually talk to each other. The problem is that this happens far too little to truly engage and a handful of characters never even get this chance. Men, Women & Children does have some interesting to say but it’s characters almost never do and the film is difficult to recommend as a result.
Jason Reitman’s latest tries to tell the story of a lot of people spending too much time on their phones but ultimately just shows a bunch of people spending time on their phones. It’s either an ironic think-piece or oddly unconsidered but, either way, it doesn’t quite work.
Men, Women & Children is out now in cinemas everywhere.