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Review: Men, Woman & Children (2014)

Men, Woman & Children (2014)

Directed by: Jason Reitman

Premise: An ensemble piece following several families and the way communication through digital media has altered their relationships. 

What Works: Men, Women & Children is one of those strange movies that isn’t very good and yet its performances are consistently impressive. The movie has multiple storylines and features many characters but by far the strongest narrative involves a high school football player (Ansel Elgort) who decides to quit the team after his mother abandons the family. He devotes his time to an online video game and develops and unlikely romance with a non-athlete (Kaitlyn Dever) whose mother maintains dictatorial control over her daughter’s digital interactions. In rebellion, the daughter maintains a secret online identity. The performances in this subplot are the strongest, in part because this portion of the film gives the actors the most to work with but also because it is one of the few narratives that is actually seen through to a conclusion. Ansel Elgort, who was also seen as a troubled teenager earlier this year in The Fault in Our Stars, does a very good job and he is able to be troubled and brooding but his pain comes across authentic without becoming self-absorbed and obnoxious in the way emo characters tend to become. Jennifer Garner is cast as the mother of his love interest and Garner plays the role of this misguided parent with conviction. She is the kind of parent who realizes the potential danger of the outside world but has overcompensated, confining her daughter to a digital bubble and ultimately precipitating the kind of behavior she was trying to avoid.

What Doesn’t: There is a lot wrong with Men, Women & Children. The dialogue by the younger characters is often fraudulent; the teenagers don’t speak like authentic adolescents but like a middle aged writer’s best guess as to how a contemporary teenager would sound. As an ensemble piece, the filmmakers of Men, Women & Children have a lot of narrative plates but they don’t keep all of them spinning. The movie has more stories than its two hour running time can manage. The subplots lack the proper build up and most of them are never brought to any kind of meaningful conclusion. But aside from the problems with the architecture of the story, the flaw that really sinks Men, Women & Children is how convoluted it is about its own subject. The movie is ostensibly about the ways in which digital communication has distorted human interaction but nothing in the film really dramatizes that issue in a convincing or a compelling way. The filmmakers’ shortsightedness is most apparent in the regard for Jennifer Garner’s character. She plays a mother who is concerned for her daughter’s wellbeing and siphons all of her digital interactions. Garner’s character is made to be an antagonist, almost a villain in places, and in several scenes the filmmakers clearly hold her in contempt. But the filmmakers’ simplistic and Luddite attitude toward technology isn’t that far off from the hysterical fear mongering of their antagonist. In their attempt to make a self-consciously important statement about a supposedly pressing issue, the filmmakers of Men, Women & Children manage to not only be simultaneously heavy handed and superficial with the topic of social media but also trivialize much more serious issues such as eating disorders, marital infidelity, and depression. The movie juxtaposes images of computers and cellphones with the characters struggling with these issues but there is no implicit or explicit connection between the technology and their personal foibles and so the movie is extraordinarily sanctimonious while being intellectually and morally vacuous.

Bottom Line: The only thing worse than a pretentious movie is a pretentious movie that has nothing to say. Men, Woman & Children is a movie whose makers think they are making a big important statement about big important issues but this movie contributes nothing to anyone’s understanding about life in the digital age while managing to trivialize much more immediate human struggles.

Episode: #516 (November 2, 2014)