“I guess I was just scared”
We are the pale blue dot. Earth? No. The intermittently blinking light on the end of an out-of-touch parent’s device for transparently spying on a daughter’s electronic path when he/she should be proud for having a smart and compassionate teen unlike the majority populating the local high school. Our world’s different from the one Carl Sagan represented by filling the Voyager spacecraft with records of music, languages, and calls of whales. Now in a post-9/11 America we fear strangers as well as friends, peers, and family members as people capable of causing the type of excruciating pain we used to reserve for nightmare. We’ve become scared of how small life’s landscape has become and in turn forgotten how inconsequential we are to the grand scheme. To our husband, wife, child, confidant: we are everything. That doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to sometimes fall.
This is a good sentiment to have when walking into Jason Reitman‘s Men, Women & Children because it’s a definite valley in a career I effusively praise. Not as misguided as Young Adult—maybe not as much as Labor Day, which I loved regardless—it finds itself believing it has something profound to say when we know the message too well. Is that his and co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson‘s fault or author Chad Kultgen‘s? Probably all three in equal measure for never accepting their subject matter’s ubiquity. I’d have given Kultgen slack if his book was written earlier than 2011, but by then we’d already been entrenched in the cloud of paranoia and over-protectiveness that’s driven today’s youth into needing thicker skin than ever before to survive adolescence. As far as bored housewives and bored husbands go: an affair has been an easy proposition for longer.
Pretty much a greatest hits of Millennial struggles and the term “good parent” needing an evolutionary overhaul considering the idea of being a selfless Mom or Dad doesn’t exist anymore, the real problem with the film is its construction. Using disembodied narration from Emma Thompson, you can’t not think about Stranger Than Fiction and let the comical nature of it taint your ability to buy into anything onscreen as authentic. A storybook feel is manufactured to make everything even more fabricated and clichéd than it is already. The filmmakers force themselves to use extreme stereotypes to get their point across, but rather than use them to subvert they believe these creatures exist in one small town. Maybe the dark fairy tale quality is more self-aware then I’d like to believe, but I was always held at arm’s length because of it.
How could I not when Jennifer Garner‘s Patricia Beltmeyer is GPS-tracking and transcribing her daughter’s every move on the internet for daily consumption? Yes, her character is the most egregious, but the others don’t fall too far behind despite retaining one foot in reality. I’ll admit my parents are a little more on the pulse of new technology than most, but I still find it hard to believe Judy Greer‘s Joan Clint doesn’t know she’s pimping her daughter or that Dean Norris‘ Kent Mooney thinks his son is better-suited for friends that would drop him the instant he quits football instead of faceless hoards of MMO trolls. Don’t get me wrong, the actors embrace these generalizations with more complexity than they may deserve, but Reitman seems to wrongly think that’s enough. I’d love to see what Todd Solondz could have done with the same material.
Just the title itself is pretentious in the aftermath of watching because it purports that this is what all men, women, and children are like as a rule when in fact I’d say half of what’s onscreen is a gross exaggeration of a minority experience. A better title would have been Individuality, Sex & Privacy because they’re the real issues. They just use the contemporary family as a canvas. By focusing so much on the people acting, however, the actions themselves come off as devices to wax on further about the fallibilities of man. It’s condescending to continuously go back to the narration of Sagan’s Voyager flying farther and farther into space, choking us on how we aren’t the innocent explorers we once were. Utilizing such a sprawling cast to ensure every age type and gender within them are represented ensures none earn enough time for authenticity.
There are exceptions. I thought Norris was great at portraying a tough guy father forced into being the caring parent he hoped his wife would always provide. Rosemarie DeWitt is stunning as the complacent wife seeking sexual adventure in a way that Adam Sandler‘s insecurity shtick can’t quite match as her husband feeling the same. Elena Kampouris‘ Allison approaches achieving the correct amount of screentime to be meaningful before getting cast aside for less depressing subject matter—as if all parts weren’t depressing by their progression’s end anyway—and Olivia Crocicchia‘s Hannah is much more complex than initial reactions allow. The real stars shining above construction, tropes, and pretension, however, are Ansel Elgort‘s Tim and Kaitlyn Dever‘s Brandy. They are the real deal.
Tim actually embracing the film’s through-line of Sagan philosophy to look outside himself and discover whom it was he lived for is inspiring. Brandy finding love in what her mother did to her is as commendable as her calculated rebellion never stretching her too far into something she’s not simply to hurt the jailer Mrs. Beltmeyer has become. It could be because they’re the two characters I related to most, but they were good enough to render the rest inconsequential. Thompson’s narration cast too comical of a hue and the subject matter of adultery, teenage miscarriage, and suicide was too dark and too much at once. It looks fantastic, does wonders visually integrating social media text boxes, and has effective performances despite inherent caricature, but it adds nothing to the discussion of a post-9/11 world. It merely exploits it.