Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children is an art film disguising itself as a star-driven dark comedy. It is meticulously paced but episodic, built on its characters but highly impersonal. And while it fails to reach the heights of the filmmaker’s prior works, it is unapologetically a Jason Reitman picture.
The film opens with a peculiar sequence of shots of the Voyager 1 spacecrafts buzzing past planets on its way out of our solar system. The rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s Giant Red Spot feature in the series, with narration providing information about Voyager’s voyage. The space probe is equipped with a record player designed to give potential extraterrestrial life its first glimpse at human kind. The sound of waves, jazz and even the human heartbeat echo through empty space. These are the markers of life on Earth? The details we find most important to define our existence? Afterall the probe was launched before home computers became commonplace so people did live empty lives during which time their only entertainment was jazz, their only feeling of security a steady heartbeat.
Men, Women & Children seems to believe that this is how people today have come to think, and awards itself the task of correcting this. Reitman, who wrote and directs, does not shy away from topical subject matter — as in Juno, his landmark comedy about teen pregnancy and the abortion issue; or Up in the Air, commentary about the loneliness of economic hardship released in 2009, the heart of the recession — and Men, Women & Children is no exception. Just before concluding the Voyager 1 episode, the audience is shown the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph, taken of Earth by Voyager 1 from the furthest reaches of our solar system in 1990. It shows Earth as an infinitesimally small spec in the vast ocean of space, a sobering thought for the egotistic human race.
What the film does, by juxtaposing this humble dot with commentary on the pervasiveness of social media is quite clever. Social media is all about the individual, about self-promotion. It requires a degree of healthy self-admiration, the sense that what you are doing or what you have to say is worthy reading for others. While everything that makes up everyone alive now, or has ever lived, or will ever lived is that lonely Pale Blue Dot, a Tumblr page can be all about you. That’s what the Internet offers in Reitman’s hyperbolized world view. Re-enforcement of one’s importance, of one’s beliefs. If a high school girl feels like she needs to maintain a toxically low weight, there’s a chatroom for that. If another needs to feel like her beauty is appreciated, there’s a photo-sharing site for that. If a woman needs to feel wanted again, there’s anonymous dating. What all of this invisible support offers is the chance to forget about what is actually going on around you. The aforementioned ordinary people no longer need to listen to parents, or do auditions, or fall back in love because the Internet gives them options.
The omniscient narration carries throughout the picture and underscores the public nature of the world of Men, Women & Children in which there is nothing truly secret and no being truly alone. The film’s ensemble exists in a way that emphasizes the accuracy of the term “World Wide Web,” because every one of the many characters is connected by the climax.
They exist in ordinary places, ripe for social interaction: the mall, the cafeteria, a football game. They just choose to keep their eyes buried in their smart phones instead of striking conversation. Is this what Reitman really thinks about high schoolers? TimeOut New York’s Josh Rothkopf took a common complaint about the film and I think said it best: Men, Women & Children is “the first Reitman film to make the 36-year-old director seem about 400 years old.” Indeed, it seems out of touch, but the script exaggerates to make a point, the part of this issue that I will not forgive is the innocence of the adults.
Innocence is not a perfect word there, but it might be the best. Yes, the “Men and Women” of Men, Women & Children are just as devious as their younger counterparts — especially the catastrophically miscasts Jennifer Gardner’s Patricia, an overbearing mother who reads a transcription of every digital interaction her daughter has — but they are shown to have skills their children lack. When Tim, played by The Fault in Our Stars revelation Ansel Elgort, approaches a girl he stumbles over his sentences and chooses not to say much, saving the meat of the conversation for a later Facebook message. His father, on the other hand, played by Dean Norris, asks a woman out by being to-the-point, actually using words like, oh you know, “date.” Why is high school football stud Tim so far behind his own father, who is going through a divorce? “I guess I was just scared.”
The omnipresence of social technology — Words With Friends with your spouse who is in the bed next to you — is alarming and, if accurate, makes Reitman’s cautious commentary worth-while. Teens, in the height of their years of social dependence get together to watch Netflix, for example, which Reitman shows without saying anything about it. Undoubtedly, 15-year-olds in the audience won’t even notice the irony, but adults will engage in a collective eye-roll. But what can these parents do? Men, Women & Children has parents doing things on every extreme from managing a promotional site for sexy photos to tracking cell phone location at all times. Both modes are harmful, and conflicted parents somewhere in between don’t fare much better.
Where Reitman’s smart commentary derails is when it seeks to deliver the finishing blow, highlighting the consequences of social pressures in the digital age. No fewer than two characters wind up having near-death experiences, and a marriage threatens to dissolve. Men, Women & Children is an imperfect movie in many ways, mostly stemming from the writer’s arrogance and Hollywood’s misguided need to cast stars (with the exception of Judy Greer, who is tremendously tragic, the film would have benefitted from new faces with which the audience can identify). It’s It’s a Wonderful Life-esque moral — that no matter how meaningless you feel, it is not worth dying over — is done-to-death, as have its archetypal characters.
So it’s not a great piece of movie-making, so what? Men, Women & Children is an important commentary that may ignite a passionate if small following, and its ultimate question will spread and seek answers. At one point, a character says, “Just let her be a teenager,” so, what exactly does that entail when teenagers are as much themselves in role-playing games as they are on the bus?