Now here’s a film that seems to have appeared out of nowhere. In less than a year after his latest film, Labor Day (still unseen by this reviewer), the first trailer for Jason Reitman’s newest project premiered just this past summer in late August. The film itself then had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival just a few weeks later, and has now received a ‘nationwide’ release (if just barely over 600 screens can be considered as such), in less than a few months of anybody really being aware of the film’s existence. This limited marketing could be accounted for what could be generous called a mixed reception, both financially and critically. Speaking personally, however, I found there to be a lot to appreciate about the film.
And on that note, I find myself quite honestly a little perplexed by universally negative reactions towards this. Despite pre release anti-hype and decidedly mixed word of mouth from TIFF, this film is not merely Cyberbully with an A-list cast and higher production values. Maybe it benefitted poorly due to comparisons towards other awards hopefuls it opened against, and people expecting a certain level of pathos and cynicism didn’t find it here. Nevertheless, I found this to be pretty engaging, despite some uncommon but nonetheless noticeable surface flaws. Thematically, this fits right in with some of Reitman’s previous, similarly themed and toned efforts such as Up in the Air and Young Adult.
Men, Women, & Children is an ensemble mosaic (think every Robert Altman film ever, except Popeye) that covers the lives of a few select families in present day Austin, Texas. From the parents to the High School kids, their various first world problems begin come about and even intersect with one another at certain points, all of which are inspired and fueled by the second screen behavior they share. Texting, instagramming, facebook messaging, tweeting, etc. – it’s all the norm now-a-days, but have we become weirder and more distanced from one another? Are our methods of communication evolving faster than we are?
One thing that might be weighing heavily on the poor reception of this film is that most people seem to be approaching this film from too general of a perspective. Sure the notion of a correlation between technology and personal isolation has been explored several other times before this, but it’s with the details where this film excels, particularly in regards to the cast of characters and more understated tone, peppered with a dry, melancholic sense of humor. And all the technological aspects of the story feel simply like conduits into exploring the lives of the characters herein, and it’s certainly an interesting group of characters. In fact, this film contains probably the most impressive ensemble cast of the year, after Gone Girl of course.
And after years of piling on dreck, Adam Sandler finally removes any expectation of receiving a fat Hollywood check at the end of the shoot, and turns in one of his more engaging recent performances, finally at home in a role more well suited to his unique onscreen presence. Also worth mentioning among this assembled cast of thousands, of which all the majors players do at least pretty solid work, are Kaitlyn Dever (fresh off an equally impressive role as a similarly troubled youngster in last year’s Short Term 12) and Dean Norris (most well known for television’s Breaking Bad, here turning in another bravura role as a schlubby, overly earnest blue collar everyman).
Another one of the film’s smartest and most appealing aspects is how it rejects any simplistic moralizing or adopting the status of a po-faced moralizer about the dangers of modern technology. The only aspect of the film which seems to embody any sort of fearful reproach from technology is Jennifer Garner’s helicopter mother character, who is frequently mocked by other characters and even shown the error of her ways by the end of the film, thus negating any possibility of the film endorsing her irrational, fear-mongering view of our modern technological culture.