Year 3, Film #29 (Total #479)
THE PLOT: A group of high school teenagers and their parents attempt to navigate the many ways the Internet has changed their relationships, their communication, their self-image, and their love lives.
THE GOOD: There’s no easier way to sum up this film than by simply saying, this is a messed up film. Men, Women & Children is just all sorts of weird, awkward, and reality taken to extremes. The question to ask is: is this a good thing? For much of the film, I didn’t think so and I’ll get much deeper into why I thought so. But that being said, there’s something appealing about this film that hits you at a much broader level, abstracted in a way from what you see and only making an impact at the end after you see all the pieces fall into place.
Jason Reitman (director of Up in the Air and Juno) is hardly the first to try and take a look at how the influx of technology (smartphones in particular) and social media has effected our lives, but his take in this film is definitely unique and all-encompassing. We’ve got kids, we’ve got parents, over-sharers, peer-pressure, sex, porn, online dating, privacy, invasion of privacy; pretty much any aspect of this topic you can think of, Men, Women & Children covers. And what this film does well is provide us with a sort of reference guide, a snapshot of what our society is like at this particular moment. While most films have acknowledged this change in some minor way (often a closeup of a cell phone when a text comes through) but none have ever made it the primary focus as this film does.
That’s not to say it’s the only focus. While the technology-aspect may be a bit gimmicky at times, Reitman does a great job at trying to integrate it into a meaningful story and move away from the gimmick. It’s not just technology for technology’s sake, it’s technology serving the greater purpose of the story and film; it just happens to be in your face every two seconds. And that is the best part about this film: seeing the effects these devices and social networks have on our everyday lives. No other film has come anywhere near as close as Men, Women & Children does to bringing you such an accurate portrayal of reality mixed with a fictional story.
THE BAD: Now, where do I begin with my annoyances. All the positive things I said above really only come at the end of the film when you see how things end and you realize that it’s more about the social commentary and creating a snapshot of our society than it is about entertainment or telling a compelling story.
This film is messed up and extreme (which I think was intentional) but it was also awkward and odd (which I think was unintentional). People may interpret this film differently and I’m not sure what Jason Retiman’s goals and intentions were in making this film, but from my point-of-view (and supported ever-so-slightly by murmurings from the audience during the screening), this film missed it’s mark completely. It feels like the entire film should bask in the glory of all the positive traits I mentioned above, but instead it’s shrouded in confusion, annoyance, and craziness.
A big issue is that of extremism. Something this film does a lot of is portray a bunch of different characters in the absolute extreme form, the best example being Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner). If you want to get a good idea of her character, just watch the trailer and you’ll get the idea. She reads over every interaction, every scrap of information, that her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) has because she demands all of her passwords to her accounts, tracks her phone religiously, and controls who she talks with and what she does. While my gut reaction was that this is a gross exaggeration and an unfathomable extreme, it actually isn’t too hard to picture happening in real life. Now I don’t think the vast majority of parents are, or will become, like Patricia, but to depict her character like the paranoid control-freak isn’t too unbelievable.
My issue lies with with how unrelatable her character is. She may be annoying and totally unlikable (and Jennifer Garner does a fantastic job at play her character) but that doesn’t mean she still can’t be relatable. A perfect example of this is Professor Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. She is one of the most annoying characters ever to grace the silver screen and every time I see her I want to punch her in the face (another great job by Imelda Staunton). But at least I get where her character is coming from and why she’s doing what she’s doing (it’s just following orders from the Ministry). With Patricia though, you don’t get that understanding. It’s like she’s just being mean and controlling just for the fun of it, with no real reason behind it, and no character justification for “no real reason behind it” being an acceptable reason.
Another annoying part about the film was the completely unnecessary voice over. While the voice they chose (Emma Thompson — she would make a very nice Siri or GLaDOS) was spot on for what a narration for this film should be like, the narration itself served little-to-no purpose. Narration is one of those things that can make or break a film and this is a case where it just compounds the list of other mistakes that occur in the film. The two main things the narration does is introduce the history of Voyager 1 and Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” (more on those in a bit), and tell us how prevalent technology has become in our society.
To narrate the latter is pointless because that’s the whole beauty of Men, Women & Children; it shows us that in ways much better than words could ever describe. The former however can be put up to debate. When I first saw Voyager 1 floating through space in the beginning of the film, my hopes and expectations instantly shot up. I’ve professed my interest for space and astronomy many times here before. Then there was mention of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” which I’ve also mentioned from time to time. But very quickly I realized these points were going nowhere and served no purpose. In the case of “Pale Blue Dot”, it actually served as a big negative impact and is where I’ll now direct most of my disgust.
The “Pale Blue Dot” for anyone who doesn’t know is a picture Voyager 1 took as it reached the edge of our solar system. Carl Sagan then remarked at how tiny Earth was and how it was no more than just a little blue speck in “a vast cosmic arena”. The film, Tim Mooney’s (Ansel Elgort) character in particular, uses this to argue that nothing matters (football, in the case of Tim’s character) and that life is pointless.
My initial reaction was one of bewilderment because I thought it was the complete opposite meaning of what Carl Sagan had implied. By the end, after the narrator recited Sagan’s words, I came to see how my initial binary reaction of “this is totally wrong” might have been off a little. It’s true, the beginning parts of Sagan’s words implies that life is pointless because, “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” But his real message comes at the end when he says, “The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand… To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Earth is a miracle. That life exists, that we exist, on Earth and there is nowhere else we know of where that’s possible, is amazing. It means that we shouldn’t taken our lives for granted, that we should live them to the fullest and savor every moment. Our planet, our lives, may be infinitesimally small in the grand scheme of things, but that little speck is the most incredible thing we know to exist. It defies reason and logic that Earth, our home, is the only known place where life exists.
THE TAKEAWAY: And it’s this idea that annoys me most about Men, Women & Children. Reitman does a really good job at realizing the importance of technology in our lives today and astutely brought that to the big screen. He also recognized the importance of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” could play in this film. But instead of bringing Sagan’s true message through to the film, Reitman misses the meaning entirely and the result is an empty, pointless film when it could have been a really poignant and sincere film.
Men, Women & Children opens in limited release on October 1, an expanded release on October 10, and a wide release on October 17, 2014.
THE RATING: 2 out of 5