Despite possessing a winning grasp on social media and a fantastic ensemble cast, this second Reitman misfire falls far too short of where it's aiming.
It seems fair to claim that approaching any sense of drama set within the 21st century (particularly in the Western world) requires some reference to the internet and social media. One of the biggest technological advancements in our known history, the internet has become so firmly integrated into our lives that in many cases, it’s become the very definition of communication. But of course anything this vast and all-encompassing has its dangers, and it’s this dark and assuming world that established awards-hungry director Jason Reitman dives into with his latest ensemble drama.
As can be expected, Men, Women & Children is very much a chronicle of the hidden lives of those mentioned in its title. From troubled teens to empty marriages, issues of the body and issues of the mind, Reitman’s film looks to shine a light on pretty much all of them, using humanity’s obsession with technology and social media as its backbone. What ensues is a series of (sort of) interlocking stories, each tackling a different social issue in order to meld together and form a supposedly masterful portrait of 21st-century suburban America. The result though is something a little more jumbled and a lot less impressive.
Despite having Chad Kultgen’s novel as his base, Reitman’s structure very much runs away from him. With so many parallel tales running alongside each other and so little time to cover all bases, what’s left is a horde of reasonably interesting and relatively involving snapshots of teen and parental drama, but no actual almighty pay-off. It’s clear that Reitman is gunning for some sort of grand pervasive message about the status of human communication and feeling but ultimately he gives himself no room to clearly express it. Throw in a clunky and awfully narrated framing device (a rare misfire for a robotic-sounding Emma Thompson) preaching the words of Carl Sagan and Men, Women & Children begins to occasionally almost border on self-parody.
This is not to say that Reitman’s film is devoid of anything worthy of praise however. Regardless of how watered-down they may appear, the stories still remain at the very least endearing, and are always incredibly well-acted. Ansel Egort and Kaitlyn Dever’s quietly sweet outcast romance is a highlight, and Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris proves his place among the Hollywood elite with a near-heartbreaking portrayal of a father at ends with his deserting wife, but there always seems to be something missing. A veteran of the dramedy from the likes of Juno to Up in the Air, its both sad and surprising that Reitman’s script lacks any sense of humour. Instead his cast flitter around their depressing lives, consistently po-faced and lacking any sense of hope, resulting in a film so down-trodden that it’s difficult to be affected by it, even when it’s at its most enlightening.
Although Men, Women & Children never fails to be engaging with its drama, it just simply doesn’t quite reach where its aiming. A hard target to be fair, but one that Reitman should have only set his sights on if he was sure he could nail it. Raised by moving performances, but flawed by its own sense of self-righteousness, this is a second misfire for the usually on-point director. Here’s hoping he rediscovers his form soon enough because in critical and commercial terms, he’s running sufficiently short on lives.
Men, Women & Children (2014), directed by Jason Reitman, is released in UK cinemas by Paramount Pictures, Certificate 15.