If you walked into Jason Reitman’s Labor Day follow up Men, Women, and Children completely unaware that there are cast members apart from Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, and Jennifer Garner, you would be forgiven. Reitman’s latest literary adaptation is, in fact, an ensemble drama, one of those ‘everything is connected’ ones, where all the characters are related to each other in some way. Here, it’s through a town in Texas, particularly the high school, and…*dun dun dun* the doooooom of the internet, and how it affects their interpersonal relationships.
The cast of miserable characters are the most stereotypical band you’ll see this year, narrated by Emma Thompson in an utterly pointless framing device. Firstly, there’s Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), an unhappy and sexually unsatisfied couple who use the internet to fuel their addictions to porn and to find other similarly lonely people. They are parents to two teenage boys, one of whom has a crush on cheerleader and aspiring actress Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). At the advice of an agent, Hannah’s regret-ridden mother (Judy Greer) who failed at being an actress in Los Angeles keeps a website of provocative photos, and takes specific ones for viewers that ask. On the same squad as Hannah is Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris, who gives the best performance), who is obsessed with dangerous dieting, and has an unrequited crush on star footballer Brandon (Will Peltz). Then, there’s ex-footballer Tim (Ansel Elgort), whose mother recently left him and his father for a new boyfriend in California, and is compensating through becoming obsessed with MMORPG games, behaviour that worries his father (Dean Norris). Tim has recently befriended Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who has an over-protective mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) who monitors her every move online through a keystroke detector, and tracks her during the day with a device built into her mobile phone, stopping at nothing to have some perception of control.
Since these characters are about as stereotypical you can get, you can probably see how this plays out. Married couple cheat on each other with people they found online, Hannah and her mother’s dubious online footprint sinks her career, Allison goes through a near death experience, and Patricia goes even more out of control and undermines Brandy and Tim’s relationship. Your acceptance of this contrived tangle of narrative ultimately depends on your personal experience of the internet, and whether you believe that these melodramatic sob stories that read like hypotheticals out of Garner’s character’s fear-mongering meetings are accurate. For anyone who’s had a reasonable amount of experience with the internet or for most people under 45, it’s going to play like a ham fisted sermon. It’s the kind of film that, likeMean Girls (I hate to refer to that good film, that interesting film, in the same sentence though), makes school principals and parents the world over think that they have kids sorted out.
Marketing has focused on the Dever, Elgort, and Garner storyline for a reason – it is, by far, the most interesting narrative trajectory in an otherwise massively overstuffed film. If it was given room to breathe, and all other threads were jettisoned, it could make an interesting stand-alone work, investigating how and why parents feel the need to be more protective than ever before, and how it’s possibly not beneficial, incorporating one of the most interesting ideas the film raises – when was that moment that we all started to feel like we had to be in instant contact with each other, that would end up giving way to possibly being privy to more private details than ever before, but also more able to present an inaccurate image of ourselves? Was it September 11, 2001, that day our world changed forever? There’s a handful of moments like these, that hint at having some unique take on the topic. When two adults are talking across a couch, and their children sit in between them like a gulf, despondently staring at screens. When it scratches the surface of the commoditisation of sex, how disconnected humanity has become, where the simple pressing of a button can feel as dramatic as a physical action.
I guess the main problem with Men, Women, and Children is that it totally lacks focus, desperately wanting to convey an important message, but failing because it is:
a. So out of touch with the current state of things, and
b. Doesn’t have a particular target.
When you’re blaming the internet, something that is used by a large portion of the world, you’re casting your net way too far. Who are you shouting at, who are you attempting to teach, to scream “THE INTERNET IS BAD CHILDREN” and “THAT’S WHY YOU SHOULDN’T PLAY ROLEPLAYLING GAMES” at? The Generican characters like those in the film? That’s the whole world, people that are at once so familiar AND people we cannot relate to at all. The fact is, all of Men, Women, and Children wants to desperately to be button-pushing, important, and offer up a supposedly insightful social commentary, but it’s not. We’re too removed from what’s happening, too sanitised to things like this from being beaten over the head with them constantly. it could be shocking and conversation starting, but the fact is, we’ve seen so many things like this, that we just shrug them off. They’re uninteresting. We’re just used to it. Is that a problem? Maybe, but things like this are certainly not doing anything to change that.
For this reason, the majority of Men, Women, and Children‘s problems lie in the source material, and not Reitman’s direction. Chad Kultgen’s novel tapes the mouth of his subject, the internet, closed, tying it to a chair and brandishing it with a knife. If taking such a one-sided approach had yielded some insights that weren’t just downright pedestrian, I would have been all for it, and, if this were the early 2000s, where the internet was still new and scary and no one had talked about this before, it may have sent tongues wagging. But no, the result of this is a film that makes the once hip wunderkind Reitman seem like he’s 70 years old and learning what Tumblr is for the first time. You want to make an insightful film about the internet today, that might actually inspire some thought? Don’t make the characters, particularly the teenagers, so paper-thin and stereotypical. There is more than one type of cringeworthy adolescent than the one that dumbly asks his parents if they found out about 9/11 via. text message, or talks in chatspeak (eg. using RL instead of real life) in normal conversation. Explore both sides – the good experiences, how it can change and save lives, how there’s more to teenagers on the internet than moody Tumblrs; and the shockingly bad, how we jump to conclusions and can track one another. If you want to make it a teaching moment to show and evoke thought in high schoolers, make it about caution, how you can have the best of both worlds. Men, Women, and Children‘s observations are as bland and uninsightful as the rest of the film – yes, we are self-absorbed zombies, attached to phones like life support machines, now what are you going to do about it?