Men, Women & Children (Review)

There is perhaps no film that captures the American Dream of suburban adolescence more gloriously than Richard Linklater’s last-day-of-school party comedy Dazed and Confused. Jason Reitman’s latest offering Men, Women and Children may well have provided us with ‘Dazed’s’ ultimate opposite and apparent nightmare. Whereas the earlier film bathes in nostalgia, a communal spirit and a mellow formula, Reitman’s ensemble piece is hypermodern; its characters visually isolated by technology and impaired by anxiety. In Linklater’s portrait of 1976, the adults and children are separated by a healthy generation gap. In Reitman’s cold, miserable now, the parents and kids share the same tastes, fears and secrets – and trawl through the same porn sites.

Set in an autumnal Texas suburb, this ensemble drama observes the lives of several sophomore high-schoolers and their parents in an attempt to draw on the contemporary social issues that permeate modern middle-class society. The film’s primary concern is our growing addiction to the internet; whether that be social media or MMORPGs – the act of friends and family members staring in silence at their tablets does at times seem responsible for emerging physical and psychological boundaries (in an image that first troubled us in Joe Swanberg’s early cautionary techno-tale LOL).

The other big dilemma at the film’s heart is society’s adapting sexual appetites and attitudes on love based upon not only our practical interaction with new technology but also how they influence our participation in public society, with new social rituals, expectations and values – married couples lie in bed next to each other playing ‘Words with Friends’, a cheerleader texts a handsome quarterback “just had your miscarriage”, and a teenage loner drills a hole in a Nerf football in order to have sex with it.

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It seems that the concept of ‘struggling with intimacy in the digital age’ is included in every log-line of 21st century romantic films and TV shows, but never has it been more applicable than here. It seems like at least half an hour passes before the film’s first real, extended physical interaction occurs – and when this conversation begins to flow (a spontaneous encounter between the story’s central teenage couple in the school cafeteria) even the most mundane, awkward chat flourishes with poignancy and power.

Adam Sandler, who has been completely cut out of some trailers (presumably in order to uphold the impression that this is a ‘film for grown-ups’) knows how to turn on the serious, as we’ve seen before in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me, and here he’s at his most naturally banal. His white-collar, sad sack Don deals with his frozen marriage by watching porn on his son’s computer before eventually progressing to escort sites where he can custom-select his very own prostitute. His wife, who is equally bored, reaches out in the form of an extramarital dating site. Added to that, their son is developing sexual issues of his own as he struggles to be aroused enough to lose his virginity, having become reliant on the extreme images that lie on the far corners of the web. The household is dominated by their secrets which create the bubbles of reclusion but at the same time unites them in depraved harmony, a bit like the “I’m not pissed” family from The Fast Show.

The film is gracious in the way that it attempts to look at the social issues from different angles, weaving between characters who display opposing points of view: Jennifer Garner (worryingly playing the role of ‘uptight bitch’ once again) plays probably the most overbearing mother seen in cinema since Margaret White in Carrie. Garner’s character uses tracking apps to monitor all online activity, including messages and texts, protecting her teenage daughter to horrific levels that would make the average member of the Parents Television Council look like an enabling hippy. On the other end of the parenting spectrum, Judy Greer’s character’s attempts to nurture her cheerleader daughter into ‘America’s Next Big Celebrity’ raises concerned eyebrows as we wonder whether it is morally acceptable to sexualise an underage girl in the hopes of gaining more fans and followers.

The film is not without its imperfections – a curious framing device is used which employs a slightly pompous and perhaps unnecessary narration by Emma Thompson over shots of the Voyager 1 space probe as it floats beyond our solar system. This, paired with the exaggerated characters, often alienates the audience and impairs the emotional impact of some of the film’s later dramatic showdowns. However, being an ensemble, social piece (and an obvious descendant of Ron Howard’s 1989 Parenthood – which set the standard for familial indie comedy/dramas for the next two decades and beyond) the film’s emotional weight is expected to be somewhat fractioned and diminished – the fact that the film juggles the several narrative strands without being a complete mess is a great achievement for the director and his co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson.

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Jason Reitman knows how to craft slick, modern character studies that deal with anti-heroes at ideological odds with everyone around them and Men, Women and Children is his most ambitious film to date. The sheer scale of the mirror Reitman holds up to America is enormous; the level of social satire is akin to a feature-length mash-up of Louis Theroux and South Park. Essentially acting as a broader and more intricate update to American Beauty, the film also reminds us of this year’s ‘operating system love story’ Her, sharing its mutual search for intimate connection within the modern technological global consciousness.

Some (especially older) audiences may find the film’s intense didacticism a little tiresome, but the alienating narrative style is alleviated by some skilful performances, particularly from the ‘children’ of the film’s title. The stand out here is Ansel Elgort whose character’s identity crisis drives the films philosophical outlook. A star of the football team in his freshman year, Tim is now a sensitive MMORPG-ing child of divorce, with a newly-developed brand of angsty nihilism. His emotional commitment to the role bleeds fragile authenticity, and the repetition of imagery of Carl Sagan’s ‘Pale Blue Dot’ explores Tim’s new found sense of positivity and love that emerges from the nihilism: our planet and the lives on it may be ultimately meaningless, and indeed when it does end, it will be as if it never existed in the first place – but for now, we must “cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”

Men, Women & Children is in cinemas now.