Jason Reitman (son of Ivan, but that’s barely relevant) spent the early days of his directorial career making some really well-regarded films. Even if Juno or Up in the Air haven’t received universal acclaim, there is evidence there of a quality filmmaker. All of which makes Reitman’s recent career trajectory so baffling. Reitman’s Labor Day was released at the end of January to pretty middling reviews; I described it as “conventional and entirely disposable,” and my opinion has not changed in the intervening months. It is surprising to see another feature from the director so quickly, but perhaps Reitman learned something from the earlier debacle. Perhaps he’s ready to come back stronger than ever with Men, Women & Children. Perhaps not.
Reitman took a break from his actual passion project to co-write (with Erin Cressida Wilson) and direct this adaptation of Chad Kultgen’s novel of the same name. The film is an ensemble piece, observing (much like the Voyager probe, which practically stars in the movie) the way the internet has changed human interaction – from husbands and wives to boyfriends and girlfriends to parents and children. The outlook is not good.
Men, Women & Children is not getting very good reviews, and that was the main reason I was putting it off. But my regular movie-going companion really wanted to see it, and who am I to say no? And about halfway through the film I was really surprised by how much I didn’t hate the movie. I don’t just mean Emma Thompson’s excellent voice-over narration. There are stretches in the film where the scary internet is just a background aspect of the relationships seen on-screen. Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt play a distant married couple, whose mutual dissatisfaction leads each to consider infidelity. Similarly effective is the storyline between a recalcitrant high school football star (Ansel Elgort) and his father (Dean Norris). Norris’s Kent is newly single after his wife abruptly left the family for California and another man. Kent is left to try to identify with his son, when all they ever really shared was football.
These stories are sold on the strength of the performances. Norris really works his character’s angle without becoming entirely sad and mopey. And Sandler – while super low energy in order to combat his “comedy persona” – manages to play everything very real.
Unfortunately it is only a matter of time before the rest of the movie infects even these well-done aspects. Jennifer Garner plays the most over-bearing mother since Mommie Dearest, monitoring every single digital communication her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) exchanges with another human being. The character is supposed to be over the top and a sort of villain, but Garner’s Patricia is so out there that she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie. Her methods turn off every character in the film; her husband (Jason Douglas) is so disturbed that he barely appears in the movie at all (the fact that he is not portrayed by a famous actor might play a part as well). But at least Patricia is trying to protect her daughter; Judy Greer’s mother character is actively posting photos of her daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) on the web that border on pornographic. What’s really crazy is that both women are so knowledgable about the internet and how it works, yet are also somehow completely ignorant when it comes to appropriate use.
That tone-deafness permeates the film. The internet wariness is the kind of thing I would expect from a director who is 73, not 37. Even Reitman’s father Ivan, who is 30 years older, has never made such a narrow-minded film. There are legitimate concerns about mass internet connectivity (Citizenfour effectively raises some of them), but Reitman’s film doesn’t address any of them. He doesn’t even take a moment to consider ways in which the internet has made the world better.
Much like in Labor Day, the failure here isn’t even spectacular. There are a couple good-looking shots, but for the most part Eric Steelberg’s cinematography is really bland. And the editing – facilitated by Dana E. Glauberman – is so sloppy that it is almost impossible to discern how much time is passing between scenes. These are the types of details a good director must be aware of. It is unclear whether Jason Reitman is a good director who has gone bad, or a bad director who was never as good as we thought he was, but I hope he pulls out of this downward slide soon. Otherwise those live readings of other people’s screenplays will be the only project of his worth enjoying.