Saturday 18 October 2014

Movie Review: Men, Women, And Children (2014)

An episodic look at relationships and sexuality in the online age, Men, Women, And Children is a mildly interesting probe of modern family dysfunctionalities, but the film stumbles on unjustified pretensions.

The focus is on the loosely related lives of high school teenagers and their parents in a middle-class suburban Texas community. Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don (Adam Sandler) are parents who have worked their way into a stagnant marriage. Don harbours a healthy online porn habit and Helen is no longer attracted to her husband. Individually, they both use the Internet to spice up their sex lives with extramarital affairs. Meanwhile their 15 year old son Chris (Travis Tope) is so jaded by online porn that he can only be aroused by extreme fetishes. Chris' classmate Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) is the high school's extroverted cheerleader and claims to be sexually experienced. Hannah has an online web site managed by her single-mom Joan (Judy Greer), featuring provocative modeling photos. Joan never made it in Hollywood, and is hoping to help her daughter into the career that she missed out on.

Patricia (Jennifer Garner) is obsessed with Internet safety for teenagers, and controls every online move made by her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who starts a tentative friendship with Tim (Ansel Elgort). Formerly the school's football star, Tim has quit the team and now immerses himself in online gaming as he drowns into a depression caused by his mother abandoning the family. Meanwhile Tim's dad Kent (Dean Norris) kindles a relationship with Joan. Allison (Elena Kampouris) is also a cheerleader, and friends with Hannah and Brandy, but she is suffering from anorexia, and turns to online support from fellow anorexics to ward off food temptations. Allison is looking for a her first sexual experience, and has a crush on an uncaring football player.

Men, Women, And Children is narrated by Emma Thompson, and frequently interrupted by pablum about the Voyager space probe hurtling through space and out of the solar system. Both the supercilious narration and the we-are-all-alone preachiness confirm the hubris hinted at in the film's title. Somehow director and co-writer Jason Reitman thought that he was making a deeply profound movie about humanity's destiny; rather, this is a modest film about a collection of people struggling with routine growing up and growing old issues in the Internet age. Men, Women And Children would have been better with more focus on characters and less galactic preachiness.

On the positive side, the stories are provocative, as intended, and fuelled by the online world's dramatic facilitation of access to explicit sexuality and seemingly anonymous interaction. Reitman is able to generate empathy for all the key characters. Refreshingly all the men, women and children are well-intentioned and doing the best with what they know. The teenagers are grappling with generational angst and awakening sexual desire in a world seemingly drenched by sex, the adults are groping through the fog of middle-age and the complexities of parenting, where the theoretical and the practical collide. And it's all happening aided and abetted by screens of all sizes, their glow the new essential backdrop for every important decision and communication.

Whether intentionally or through oversight, the film omits any families and characters who can be classified as normally happy. While unconflicted characters are admittedly less interesting, they would provide a useful reference point in a sea of turmoil. Brandy is the closest thing to a normal teen that the film offers, but even she has online secrets waiting to be revealed.

The performances err towards the entrenched side of adequate, with both Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer not helped by over-the-top parental characters that push the boundaries well past reasonable. Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt and young Kaitlyn Deaver emerge with the most credit.

Men, Women, And Children is close to being a worthwhile chronicle of digitally-driven familial dynamics. The film needed less pomposity and more tenderness to properly wriggle into the heart.

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