By James Hancock October 21st, 2014
Jason Reitman’s new film “Men, Women & Children” made an audible thud at the box office this weekend, attracting a smaller audience on 608 screens than “Birdman” managed on only 4. This is almost impossible to believe given the appeal of Reitman’s earlier work and his massive fan base but having now seen “Men, Women & Children” for myself I can understand why. “Men, Women & Children” is a pretentious, self-important pile of shit that sermonizes at length about a topic that the director personally admits he knows very little about, social media. I take no pleasure in trashing this film (alright maybe some) in that for a long time I was a massive fan of the director and eagerly looked forward to seeing his new films. After seeing “Thank You For Smoking” (2005) and “Juno” (2007) I was blown away with his ability to work with actors and I believed that Jason Reitman was going to evolve into one of the best filmmakers of his generation. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a young filmmaker constantly being described as a prodigy of cinema, but I think either the echo chamber of ass kissers is affecting his talent or he is so determined to be taken seriously that he has lost touch with the seemingly effortless charm of his first few films. I saw the first warning signs that the praise was getting to him when I saw the trailer for “Up in the Air” (2009). I remember being excited to see the movie but hating the nauseating tone of George Clooney’s monologue. As his character shares pearls of wisdom about life throughout the trailer I felt the style was preachy and sanctimonious much like the tone of “Crash” (2004) by director Paul Haggis, a filmmaker whose work as a director I loathe. I was not as enamored with “Up in the Air” as most people were but overall I enjoyed it and I was confident at that time that Jason Reitman would outgrow this new strain of pretentiousness. His next film “Young Adult” (2011) I thought wasn’t properly appreciated and Reitman’s “Labor Day” (2013) came and went so quickly I forgot it existed until very recently. From what I’ve read and heard, it is not a neglected masterpiece and Reitman has publicly tried to distance himself form the failure of that project.
“Men, Women & Children”, based on the book by Chad Kultgen, is an ensemble piece about the way social media, online pornography, online gaming and other any social interaction enabled by the internet affects our lives. The story takes place in a small town in Texas and follows several characters of varying age, all of whom are struggling with a variety of personal problems such as eating disorders, impotence, marital boredom, domineering parents, most of which the audience experiences through the prism of social media and the role it plays in how we grapple with these problems. Throughout the story we also have footage of the Voyager 1 space probe as it exits our solar system along with voice over rambling at length about our place in the cosmos and specifically how the audience is supposed to feel about the problems faced by our characters. Reitman has assembled an outstanding cast including Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Emma Thompson as well some talented newcomers and to their credit they give it their all. Unfortunately, they often have to read cringe-inducing dialogue as their characters evolve along the most predictable paths possible. What I disliked most about the film is overall impression that the “message” of the film coincides with the attitude of the film’s most loathsome character, Patricia Beltmeyer played by Jennifer Garner, a paranoid irrational mother who monitors and controls every moment of her daughter’s online activity.
I have not read the source material so I don’t know how many of the movie’s problems stem from the book versus the adaptation, but the movie suggests that in every case of technology abuse where a character has an unhealthy relationship with social media, the exception must be the rule. One of the characters has a porn addiction that makes it difficult for him to function sexually so the movie concludes that this must be true for every person watching pornography on the internet. For me that is as ridiculous as claiming every golfer is a maniac because every once in a while some idiot wraps his club around a tree in frustration. Even worse is when the movie condemns something like online gaming without bothering to learn enough about the topic to condemn it with any authority. I am an avid online gamer and I’m the first to admit that there is plenty to criticize about the toxic, dark side of gaming culture but this film unfortunately completely drops the ball. At one point in the movie, Dean Norris’ character is annoyed when his son played by Ansel Elgort quits the football team in order to spend his time playing “Guild Wars” on his computer. When his son steps away from his computer without logging out of his account, Norris’ character takes a moment to see what the game is all about and what his son’s online friends are like. He reacts in complete horror to the trash talking one finds in most networked games and decides to cancel his son’s account. What annoyed me about the scene was not the inevitable confrontation between father and son, but rather how revealing their dialogue was about Reitman’s knowledge or lack thereof of gaming. Without going into too much detail, it is clear that neither Reitman nor his co-writer have ever bothered to turn on a computer game nor do something as simple as cancel an account in order to write the scene with any accuracy. Needless to say, the film gets every of detail of gaming culture completely wrong, defanging what could have been a powerful scene about the bullying and abuse most players have to deal with in gaming culture. Even my 9-year-old brother would have laughed in ridicule at the scene, and this lack of expertise over the subject matter is one of the persistent acute problems that cripples the movie’s ability to connect with the audience. The timing for this movie couldn’t be more perfect and I would love to see a great topical movie that wrestles with these issues. “Men, Women & Children” had the opportunity to make a bold statement about our relationship with technology, but the impact of this flick falls far short of the film’s ambition and this film will feel even more irrelevant with the passage of time. I think a large part of the problem is that Reitman is clearly trying to make a message film without any clear idea of what he wants his message to be. I’ve read and watched a few interviews with Reitman recently and he is the first to admit that he feels disconnected from teenagers and their obsession with social media. Apparently the younger members of his cast would often have to take him under their wing and instruct him on the set about what apps they use on their phones and what purposes they serve. Why Reitman would feel compelled to make a film about a subject that he admittedly knows little about is beyond me. The result is that this film feels as if it were made by a filmmaker in his Seventies trying to come to terms with a world they feel threatened by and are now reacting to in alarm. Keep in mind, that Jason Reitman just turned 37 and at a time where he should have his fingers on the pulse of contemporary culture, he suddenly appears out of touch and obsolete. We live in an era where our mobile devices make us nearly superhuman when they are in our possession and basically helpless when they are not and our attachment to this technology is clearly accelerating. At some point a filmmaker is going to emerge who captures and embodies this era in the way that Tarantino represented the era of the encyclopedic video store clerk of the 80s and 90s. For now, it appears safe to say that Jason Reitman is not that guy.
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