“Don Truby thought about Kelly Ripa’s anus.” This is the first line of the book upon which Jason Reitman’s latest film Men, Women & Children is based, and the first of many signs that I was not exactly in for a subtle read. Indeed, as I continued to read Chad Kultgen’s novel in the week before the film adaptation was released, I found myself taken aback by the broad, on-the-nose dialogue, the dull prose, the often morally questionable storylines, and the absence of resolution for nearly all of the characters. I knew that if Reitman’s cinematic translation were to work, he’d need three crucial elements: an adapted screenplay that reconciles the novel’s myriad flaws, a strong sense of direction, and an ensemble of actors that could elevate the problematic, far-fetched narratives into a believable story. When I watched Reitman’s film yesterday, I was pleased to find that it managed to succeed on all three counts, albeit to varying degrees.
The film follows the interlinked stories of numerous families in a suburb of Austin, Texas, constantly shifting perspectives among high school teenagers and their parents. Every character in the movie has some type of conflict – internal or interpersonal, subtle or overt – that is either derived from or exacerbated by modern technology in some way. From an anorexic girl (Elena Kampouris) who looks to internet support groups for advice on dealing with food cravings to a mother (Judy Greer) who posts borderline-lewd photos of her daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) on the internet, every character in the story looks to technology as a means of solving their problems. More often than not, however, these problems only increase in size and magnitude as a result of the characters’ actions.
There is a fine ethical line that this film – or any film dealing with such issues – walks between a cautionary tale on the dangers of technology and an outright condemnation of it. Unfortunately, in some of the storylines, Reitman’s film veers towards the latter. However, given the even more one-sided book, his adapted screenplay (co-written with Erin Cressida Wilson) does wonders in toning down the novel’s loud, blunt message, particularly in its amendment of the resolutions of nearly every storyline. In fact, one of the plotlines concludes with a fascinating implication that technology can actually mend a fractured marriage by facilitating an untraditional relationship. If more of the narratives had ended on a similarly positive note, Men, Women & Children would lend itself to a much more balanced, coherent argument. As it stands, the screenplay is a massive improvement over its source material, but is still noticeably flawed.
While Reitman’s adaptation could have been stronger, his sensitive approach to directing is certainly one of the film’s greatest assets. It is an undeniable fact that technology has become one of the primary ways through which we, as humans, communicate, and Reitman wisely capitalizes on this truth. By putting these interactions (be it via Facebook, text message, or an online dating website) directly onto the screen, he adds an element of contemporary voyeurism to the film without slipping into gimmick. The effectiveness of this decision is most evident when it provides the audience with knowledge of things unbeknownst to the characters – such as a scene in which two girls send catty messages to each other about a third girl, who is in the process of regaling them with fabricated stories of her sex life. Aside from several noticeably mistimed music cues and the occasional arbitrary diversion into Emma Thompson’s narration from space (which only pertains to one of the storylines), Reitman does a fine job of weaving the narrative threads together and making them flow naturally. His work here is far better than his sappy, tonally jumbled direction of last year’s Labor Day.
However, what makes Men, Women & Children such a worthwhile watch is the stunning ensemble of actors, all of whom elevate even the most far-fetched storylines into something compelling and convincing. Among the adolescents, the two standouts are Kaitlyn Dever as the victim of her mother’s watchdog mentality – who brings the same remarkable naturalism and heartbreaking sensitivity that she did to last year’s Short Term 12 – and her on-screen love interest, Ansel Elgort – whose timid, withdrawn nature stands in remarkable contrast to his more affable characterization in The Fault in our Stars, pegging him as a young actor with surprisingly versatility. Despite a few false notes among several of the other teenage performers, Crocicchia and Kampouris in particular, the young cast generally hold their own against the set of much more experienced adult actors that Reitman has assembled.
Nonetheless, it is the consistently impressive adult ensemble that do much of the heavy lifting, and elevate the often crude writing in a way that I did not think was possible after reading the novel. Judy Greer is excellent as a misguided mother who realizes too late that her attempts to help her daughter achieve her goals are doing more harm than good. Jennifer Garner, who has possibly the most underwritten character, manages to be convincingly terrifying and despicable, yet ultimately (and miraculously) sympathetic in her final scene. She deserves full accolades for doing the most she could with the least to work with.
The true surprise for me, however, and what I consider the best performance in the film, comes from none other than Adam Sandler. As a weary, woefully unhappy husband who hires an escort to fulfill his sexual needs, he is unexpectedly subtle and absorbing, especially in light of his lack of the one “big,” emotional moment that most of the other narrative threads contain. One scene in particular that stands out occurs towards the end of the film, when he finds his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) in a compromising situation. The look in his eyes as he stares at her perfectly conveys a complex emotion that Kultgen’s novel took about two pages to explain. In about twenty minutes of screentime, he accomplishes more than he has in his entire career up to this point (Funny People sight unseen). Sandler is the best among greats here, and it is truly to his credit, and the credit of this marvelous group of actors, that Men, Women & Children (warts and all) works as well as it does.
By Alex Martin