'Men, Women & Children': Toronto Review

Men Women Children Trailer Jennifer Garner H 2014
Paramount Pictures/Screenshot

Men Women Children Trailer Jennifer Garner H 2014

A keen, analytical portrait of the current moment in electronic and interpersonal communications.

Adam Sandler and Jennifer Garner star in Jason Reitman's drama about sexual frustrations in the smartphone era

Men, Women & Children is a how-we-live-now time capsule, a hypnotic, if clinical, assessment of middle-class social attitudes, sexual mores and interpersonal communication in the instant-messaging age. While it can’t be as graphic and salacious as Chad Kultgen's 2011 novel, Jason Reitman's new film skillfully navigates through the personal melodramas of many characters with a nice sense of balance and a sharp appreciation of generational differences. Despite the 50/50 split in focus between teenagers and parents, older viewers will likely constitute the main audience for this Paramount release simply because of the "otherness" factor, the voyeuristic interest of peeking into adolescent lives, something that will just make many kids shrug their shoulders.

Working with co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, Reitman provides a cosmic framework for the characters’ shenanigans with mordant commentary about the overwhelming insignificance of humankind spoken by Emma Thompson that accompanies visuals of the Voyager spacecraft making its way out of the solar system, Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot" that is Earth becoming ever less prominent all the while.

A film dedicated to the proposition that modern humans may simultaneously be more personally connected and emotionally disconnected than ever in the computer/cellphone/texting era, it also places a strong emphasis on porn and the sexual saturation the web provides if you open the door to it at all. No one here is immune: Paunchy, bearded Don Truby (Adam Sandler) practically lives for it, in secret from his wife, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), who’s no longer interested that way in Don but cautiously begins exploring a site for assignations.

Addiction of a different sort claims Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), a handsome football star who has quit the team and withdrawn into violent Guild Wars video games since his mother split for California and another man. Jock dad Kent (Dean Norris) has also had the wind knocked out of him and is in no condition to give his son a boost.

More narcissistically involved with the web is class "slut" Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia), who heedlessly texts anything and everything sexual she does or thinks while counting the days until Hollywood takes notice of her and makes her a celebrity. Her mom, Donna (Judy Greer), whose youthful efforts to conquer showbiz went nowhere, is blindly complicit in her daughter’s ambitions, supporting Hannah’s strategic moves to be cast on a hot reality show.

Countering this blithe attitude is Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner), a hovering mom who spends most of her day tracking her perfectly normal daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), blocking any communications that might be over-the-line and even sponsoring a parents’ workshop designed to inform clueless adults about what’s out there.

Then there’s insecure wannabe Allison (Elena Kampouris, who could just about pass for another Fanning sister), a waify blonde who feels she can never be thin enough (her preferred website is “Thin2Win,” the slogan of which is “pretty bitches never eat”) and without sufficient strength and self-esteem to resist being used sexually.

Especially toward the beginning, the screen crowds over with texts and other forms of rapid communication, and there are plenty of scenes of people looking at them as well as examining websites. But Reitman has made sure that there is character relevance to all the images, so that when Don cruises porn sites or Helen begins daring to look for an anonymous partner, there’s a connection that makes sense or illuminates a character.

One pronounced underlying motif is the markedly different way the 40-something parents approach sex (if they do at all) compared to their kids. The grown-ups, despite their presumed longtime experience, speak to each other much more guardedly and politely, as if afraid to appear presumptuous or to directly address the obvious subject at hand. This has its drawbacks, of course, but, then, so does the kids’ pretend nonchalance; one of the boys, grudgingly willing to initiate the insecure Allison if she really wants it, treats the whole matter as if it were of no greater importance than having an afternoon snack.

This encounter has rough consequences for Allison, but the scales are balanced when Patricia’s hyper-vigilance goes overboard with potentially tragic consequences. Although it takes no moral point of view on electronic connectivity other than that its abuse is bound to be bad for you, the film does make a very specific demarcation by defining the kids as the post-9/11 generation; one class project has students interview older folks about what they were doing when they found out what happened that morning (horndog Don and his wife decline to answer).

Gracefully and just maybe too neatly, Reitman orchestrates the diverse storylines to converge at a moment when many of the characters finally get together romantically, notably the reticent and wounded Kent with the deficient mom Donna, Don and Helen with their separate arranged sessions and, most agreeably and sweetly, Brandy and Tim, who are very nicely played by Dever and Elgort.

Reitman maintains a very cool tone, in keeping not only with the electronic nature of the characters’ lives but with a much reduced sense of romanticism and eroticism compared, in the first case, to, say, 19th century novels and, in the latter, to, for example, ’60s or ’70s music. The characters seem not to know what they’re missing.

The cast is an ensemble all the way, with the well-known actors meshing seamlessly with the unknowns and newcomers. As a horny sad sack who’s reluctantly accustomed himself to sublimating his pressing needs, Sandler appealingly underplays, while DeWitt, as his straying wife, ultimately expresses a boldness at odds with her fundamentally unadventurous nature. Greer and Garner nicely catch the essences of characters that are clueless and scary, respectively. With its cultural antenna at attention and a style as precise and burnished as the latest high-tech instrument, Men, Women & Children will always serve usefully as a snapshot of this moment; illustrative right now, it will likely look quite quaint within a decade.

Production company: Right of Way Films
Cast: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Emma Thompson (narrator), Dennis Haysbert, J.K. Simmons, Timothee Chalamet, Olivia Crocicchia, Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, Katherine Hughes, Elena Kampouris, Will Peltz, Travis Tope, David Denman
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the novel by Chad Kultgen
Producers: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook
Executive producers: Michael Beugg, Mason Novick
Director of photography: Eric Steelberg
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Dana E. Glauberman
Music: Bibio

Rated R, 119 minutes