Men, Women & Children (2014)

Men Women and ChildrenDepressed teenager Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort) is experiencing angst of an existential variety. Since his mother left his father (Dean Norris), and his footballer friends excommunicated him for leaving the team, he has begun to wonder whether anything in his life really matters — anything, that is, apart from MMORPG Guild Wars. Across town quarterback Chris Truby (Travis Tope) is so desensitised by fetish pornography that he can no longer sustain an erection without the aid of the Internet. His parents, Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), each similarly dissatisfied with their lives offline, have signed up to dating and escort agencies respectively to begin illicit affairs, leaving him home alone with aspiring actress Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). For Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), meanwhile, the Internet offers no such escape; her mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) monitors her internet usage and tracks her mobile phone.

As narrator, Emma Thompson begins the film by questioning the importance of a solitary planet in a universe that doesn’t just dwarf it, but transcends it. She points to a picture taken by the Voyager Space Probe in 1990 at a distance of six billion kilometres, after completing its primary mission to explore the outer planets of our solar system, which reduces all life on Earth to a pale blue dot all but lost to the vastness of space. As the probe leaves our galaxy on an extended voyage of discovery, carrying with it little more evidence of our world than whale-song and multilingual pleasantries, the people of Earth — or at least those featured in Jason Reitman’s latest film — are focused on another pale blue dot all together: the kind emitted from a router or similar Internet device. They are not looking up at the stars but down at their screens — to a new universe that they themselves have created.

Although Men, Women & Children might be named after its users, constituting two generations of small-town America, Reitman is just as interested in the contents of their messages as he is in the messengers themselves. If, as Thompson seems to suggest, humanity is null and void, then what does that mean for our digital lives? After all, cosmologically it doesn’t matter one bit that Tim Mooney quit the football team or Chris Truby could’t get an erection, and yet long after they are gone and forgotten Voyager will still be transmitting choice data into space — an analog avatar for the human race. The Internet is often dismissed as immaterial and inconsequential but in the end it is no more or less important than anything else; as long as it matters to someone it has value and meaning. More than just a gimmick, Reitman’s decision to depict texts and tweets onscreen enables him to explore a new dimension of human behaviour — new levels of duplicity and intimacy.

As such, equal weight is afforded to actions both online and off. For the younger characters especially it is often difficult to differentiate between the two — so ingrained have notions such as instant messaging, gratification and celebrity become in the Internet age that they influence everyone and everything. Whether it is a group of girls saying one thing and texting another, a loner forced to blog anonymously to circumvent her overprotective mother or a boy investing his time in solitary quests rather than competitive sports the Internet has become a dominant and indomitable force in our lives. For Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris) the effects are rather more insidious — a cheerleader peer-pressured into losing weight for the benefit of a boy she likes, Allison’s abnormal behaviours have been reinforced and facilitated by Internet forums dedicated to dieting and self-harm — but this is no cautionary tale, simply a credible one.

As impartial as his narrator’s dispassioned drawl, Reitman explores the effects of the Internet on his ensemble with an often disquieting detachment — and it’s not just the iGeneration that are in his sights. Adult characters include a father disappointed that his son has broken tradition and sourced pornography online rather than through his own secret stash; a mother who posts inappropriate pictures of her teenage daughter to a website for anonymous subscribers; and a school councillor who medicates a student for playing video games when he should ideally be spending more time in RL. Rather than patronise his audience by dismissing such behaviours as obsolete or reactionary, Reitman accepts them unquestioningly — just as he does Don and Helen’s embrace of the new technology. His conclusion? That human nature is a rare, beautiful, frustrating, loving, selfish, ludicrous, perverse and irrational thing — wherever it manifests. These connections are at once everything and nothing at all.

The performances are flawless, with the actors rising to the challenge of interfacing with screens as often as co-stars. Elgort — fresh from Divergent and The Fault In Our Stars — gives his most promising performance yet, his disenfranchised former footballer perhaps making the largest impression. Tim’s burgeoning relationship with Dever’s Brandy is a joy to behold, and even though most of it unfolds electronically it never ceases to inspire — just as his mother’s decision to block him on Facebook smarts like any other betrayal. The Truby household is just as compelling, with mother, father and eldest son drawing the drama in different directions. Sandler is the best he’s ever been, and one of the most memorable scenes sees him and his wife play Scrabble on their tablets in bed while their TV does the talking for them. Next to their despondent domesticity the affairs they embark on are almost effervescent — the non-judgemental treatment of their infidelity incredibly refreshing. Throughout the film, across the cast, there is such desperation, and yet such hope.

Men, Women & Children is an ambitious work, and it will likely take repeated viewings to fully analyse and appreciate its insights. Juno, Up In The Air and Young Adult are all accomplished efforts — Labor Day notwithstanding — but it is with Men, Women & Children that Reitman has finally produced a masterpiece. It may only be an abstract file saved to the hard-drive of a projector on an infinitesimal rock in an infinite universe but it matters — at least to me. It makes a connection, and it’s real.



About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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