Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Men, Women and Children

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort,
Kaitlyn Dever, J.K. Simmons, Dennis Haysbert, Olivia Crocicchia, Elena Kampouris, Travis Tope, Emma Thompson (voice)
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating:  R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Throughout the 1970's, the ABC network aired The After School Special, a series of made-for-TV movies aimed at teens that tackled controversial social issues of the time. If such a special came out today, exploring the dangers of social media and technology, and you mixed it in a blender with American Beauty, the result would sort of strangely resemble Jason Reitman's Men, Women and Children. But while those comparisons seem to set the stage for the latest in a long list of pans for one of the worst received movies of last year, it's actually kind of a compliment. After all, both won awards and critical acclaim for good reason. This sure didn't, but it's certainly more intriguing than expected, and hardly the huge abomination the media trumpeted it as.

Reitman may not achieve everything he sets out to, inevitably falling short of its brilliant teaser poster's promise, but it mostly works. For better or worse, I was gripped by each of the stories that comprise the narrative and impressed by a handful of actors playing against type. The big surprise was that it was a bit more restrained than expected given a subject matter that deals less with the dangers of the digital age, but how people are really the problem.

After a cosmic framing device speculating on humans' place in the universe (sardonically narrated by Emma Thompson), we crash down to Earth where Don (Adam Sandler) is a depressed, sexually frustrated husband stuck in a passionless marriage to an equally bored Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt). She spends her free time at work creating an Ashley Madison profile while he's building up the courage to seek out an escort service and sneaking into his teen son Chris' (Travis Tope) room to view online pornography.

So extreme is Chris' taste in porn that it's actually preventing him from being aroused by anything or anyone else, including would-be girlfriend and aspiring celebrity, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). Her vanity proves to be a contagiously destructive influence on younger classmate, Allison (a shockingly good Elena Kampouris), a formerly overweight girl starving herself to gain the attention of an older "bad boy" who wouldn't give her the time of day.

Meanwhile, Hannah's mom Joan (Judy Greer), a former actress, is maintaining her daughter's website, taking and posting inappropriate photos of her for paying subscribers in a desperate attempt to boost her profile. Joan forms a bond with single dad, Kent (Dean Norris) over their mutual dislike of the neighborhood's cyber-watchdog mom, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), whose constant monitoring of daughter Brandy's (Kaitlyn Dever) online and cell phone activity is preventing the teen from having anything resembling a social life.

At school, Brandy finds a kindred spirit in Kent's son, the similarly depressed and introspective Tim (Ansel Elgort), who suddenly quit the football team and is addicted to an online role-playing video game. They start secretly seeing each other in what ends up being the golden ticket storyline, easily doing the best job at conveying the film's themes of loneliness and isolation amidst a world that's more technologically connected than ever. 

Okay, so when described like this, the whole thing does seem a little ridiculous. But it isn't strung together by contrivances or coincidences, as is often the case when dealing with intersecting storylines within a single film. Nothing happens here that's crazy to accept and it plays more like a collection of character sketches. Of course, some are better than others. And as uninteresting as it would seem spending two hours watching strangers text and stare at their screens, this presents that idea more tolerably than similar films exploring the subject, or even movies of other genres with characters electronically plugged in. At least Reitman can provide the reasoning that he's showing exactly what his film is about through their actions.

It's almost painful to reveal that the weakest thread is Sandler's and DeWitt's, if only because the last thing Sandler needs is anyone discouraging him for stepping out of his comfort zone and exploring his dramatic side. Here he proves again just how subtle and effective a performer he is when out of goofball mode. Unfortunately, it's in a typical unsatisfied spouses storyline, as these two downers sulk through their extra-marital affairs. This, along with their son's impotence issues (which isn't given as much time), is the weakest segment, culminating in a resolution that's very matter of fact. Those complaining this film hits audiences over the head with its themes should re-watch this story arc as its restraint is more likely to induce a nap.

The pairing of Dean Norris and Judy Greer is a highlight, with both are cast wildly against type. Norris' Kent is nervous and underconfident in the wake of his wife leaving their family while Greer plays the stage mom from hell, living vicariously through her daughter until a harsh dose of reality knocks her cold. It's an especially big jump for Norris, who's very far removed from Breaking Bad's macho, authoritative Hank Schrader as fans should be surprised just how large his supporting role is and what he does with it.

Tim having this sudden epiphany and quitting the football team because he's miserable for reasons having nothing to do with football just might be the most realistic event in the film. That's just exactly the kind of thing an angry, depressed teen would do and it feels completely earned, as does most of the storyline involving him and Brandy's secret, forbidden relationship. Touching and truthful to a fault, you have to wonder how good a film this could have been on its own, with Elgort and Dever proving why they're on the top of everyone's list of young actors to watch.

Elgort continues his streak of straddling the line between likable jock and sensitive introvert, adding depth to what could have been a superficially drawn teen caricature, while Dever conveys this world of hurt and shame on her face without muttering a word. And with Jennifer Garner's psychotically overprotective parent watching her every move, that's understandable. Would anyone go to the extreme lengths she does to shield her daughter from social media? You wonder why she even lets her daughter have a phone or computer considering all the work she must put in monitoring it.

The most interesting takeaway is that if this took place during another era, we'd still have this issue. It's the technology that's allowing us to hurt each other faster and more impersonally, as a phone or mobile device in the hands of these characters may as well be a pipe bomb. Reitman's multi-narrative approach toward presenting modern technology as gasoline on a fire is a good one, even as many didn't care for how he went about making that point or thought maybe he just shouldn't have said anything at all. As someone who's no fan of his pitiful previous effort, the belabored Labor Day, and agrees he's slipped recently, there's still no denying pitchforks were undeservedly out for this one before it was even released.

Chalk it up to low expectations or this falling firmly within the suburban drama genre I tend to heavily favor, but Reitman deserves credit for at least trying something different and achieving passable results, thanks mostly to the performances. Years down the line, when the technology becomes dated and the film's an artifact, it remains to be seen whether this effort provides any insight on human behavior. It's a movie very much of its time. Of course, that time happens to be now and the characters inhabiting it are irritatingly and uncomfortably recognizable.

No comments: