By Kyle G. King. Voyager 1 was first launched into orbit 37 years ago on September 5th, 1977. It’s principal mission was to explore our outer Solar System, travel farther than any other spacecraft, and to document what it found. It has a highly complex array of fuel, batteries, cameras, and research equipment that allows it to propel itself through space while taking pictures and gathering data to send back to Earth. It also carries onboard the famed “Golden Record”, which is a phonograph disc composed of long-lasting gold plated copper. This record contains sounds and images carefully selected to represent the diversity of life and culture here on Earth, and is meant for any intelligent extraterrestrial life forms that may come upon it. Jason Reitman’s latest film Men, Women & Children begins not with people, but with this story of Voyager.
Director Jason Reitman, along with Erin Cressida Wilson, adapt the film’s screenplay from a novel written by Chad Kultgen of the same name. Men, Women & Children aims to examine the sociological effects that the internet and mobile technology have had on our modern world. It’s a film that takes place in what could be any middle-class American suburb – to be precise, it takes place in a middle-class Texan suburb – and studies a class of wayward high school students and their devoted parents, each of whom asserts different degrees of tyranny and omniscient control over their progeny, either through or against technology. The divide of this relationship, between parent and child, is the seeming reflection of Voyager 1’s tale. That technology, which might aim to help us better communicate with each other (parents/children, Earthlings/E.T.s), actually provides the means to separate us even further. Voyager 1 hurtles through space and time only ever observing space, never really communicating with anything besides itself.
In Men, Women & Children we see several loosely connected stories that all deal with congruent themes. It is no secret that today’s parents largely fail to relate to their kids while they are at that tumultuous age between 14 and 18. Parents are anxious about sending their kids away from home without molding them into well adjusted human beings in preparation for what lies ahead. Reitman digs into this tendency in a time when cell phones, video games, and social media all have a propensity to build either hurdles or fences for the good intentions of these parents.
Don Truby (Adam Sandler) does very little to relate to either of his sons or his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt). He’s taken them all for granted and assumes his family is content. He has worked to give them a luxurious home on the salary of a boring accountant, and expects obedient sons and regular sex from his wife. He never says any of this, of course, nor is he outwardly manipulative or abusive; he is simply stupefied into thinking that these relationships will be as he wants without having to put forth any additional effort. Helen has lost all interest in sex as well as connecting with her husband and is taunted one night while laying in bed next to him by a television ad that reads, “life is short, have an affair.” This advertisement becomes their subliminal mantra as they hurtle past the familiarity of their regular lives and delve deep into the uncharted territory of infidelity. Helen is eager to enjoy sex again and meets an ally on an internet dating site who is just as eager to help her, known only as Secretluvur (Dennis Haysbert). Don has an awkward secret-sexual affair of his own with a paid escort that fails to leave him satisfied with himself or his marriage.
I found this storyline to be rather stale and tacked on, more so than others. While I applaud any dramatic role in which Adam Sandler manages to be cast (eager am I for another like Punch-Drunk Love), Don is never more than a boring one-dimensional, sex-driven dad. Sandler satisfies with subtlety as best he can, but the screenplay doesn’t offer enough depth for him to shimmer. Rosemarie DeWitt has a tiny bit more character depth to wiggle in with Helen (and she does great with that wiggle), but it’s a tired story of a loveless marriage and the subsequent affair, and little more is present for the film to scream or sizzle. Reitman doesn’t effectively spin the film as anything beyond that, nor does he even reflect it back to its central theme.
Don’s first born son Chris (Travis Trope), however, better captures the zeitgeist of the times. As a football player and high school student, he is naturally riddled with hormones, and Chris is fortunate enough to live in a time that offers an unbounded supply of sexually explicit stimuli at his fingertips. But the persistence of both his pubescent desires and the internet’s endless collection of pornography has elevated Chris to a new standard for erections. Twenty-five years ago Chris might not have the rich archive of sexual imagery available to him, and it would be a far duller blade to cut himself with. The mystery and conjecture of sex wouldn’t be so unrealistic and unguarded; it could go undiscovered for years. Youporn.com doesn’t paint a realistic picture of sex and what to expect, but Chris is ignorant and has become desensitized to ‘normal sex’, even by internet standards.
Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia) is the head cheerleader who is fervent about becoming the sexual guru of her high school class. Her sexuality is supported by and enabled through her single mother Donna (Judy Greer), a former actress who couldn’t quite hack it in Hollywood, and now commits herself to running Hannah’s arguably less than wholesome “acting website.” As you might come to expect from a movie about high-schoolers, Hannah the Cheerleader takes an interest in Chris the Football Player. This clash of carnal identities has a lot of juicy momentum, but it ultimately ends with figurative and literal impotency, not without respectable performances by youngsters Trope & Crocicchia. These two stories of Hannah & Chris and Hannah & her mother seem to be merely vapid observations about the time we live in, rather than actual, well-balanced storyarcs. Sexualized teenagers can be a dramatically lucrative subject to illuminate, but the light bulb dies rather quickly for Hannah, Chris, and ultimately, Reitman.
Other plotlines are offered, but go nowhere original or worse, nowhere at all: Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris) struggles with her body image, an eating disorder, and how she can use them to win the gaze of her boy crush. She’s consistently told that she looks so much skinnier this year and she’s “a total piece now”, but as rich as Reitman makes this storyline, he never cashes it in, and the sequence amounts to little learned, by Allison or the audience. It becomes just another bleak observation on the transgressions of the current generation, exhibited with no depth of commentary or originality.
Donna earns more screen time outside of her daughter when she catches the eye of Kent Mooney (Dean Norris of Breaking Bad). Kent is recently divorced and Donna becomes the first woman to infiltrate his thoughts since his wife left. They have a few scenes of tender charm that veterans Norris and Greer handle honorably. But this fails to materialize as a storyline outside of the few select scenes they are granted.
Most of the movie is invested in Kent’s son Tom (Ansel Elgort). Tom is the star football player of his high school student body, but one day he decides that he doesn’t see the point in playing football anymore. He is consumed by Carl Sagan’s sentiment in the Pale Blue Dot speech: that the universe is vast, the Earth is but a tiny dot on the landscape of infinity, and his own life will go largely unnoticed by the universe as a whole. Powerful stuff for a high schooler to swallow, but Tom takes mouthfuls and tells everyone he can about it. His popularity plummets after abandoning football. Everyone feels abandoned and blames him for the school’s recent losses. Tom finds solace with another outcast in Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), who keeps her head low enough to avoid the social radar but still has confidence of her own.
The film’s contemporary commentary comes from Brandy’s over-protective probation officer-esque mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner). Patricia has access to her daughter’s Facebook page, text message history, keystroke activity on her home computer, and exact whereabouts through a tracking device in her cell phone. Brandy is a prisoner to her mother’s surveillance and totalitarianism. She screens her texts, tracks her movements, and governs her social life by deleting and responding, as her daughter, to her private messages. The irony of all this espionage is that it forces Brandy to rely on real life interactions with people rather than an online exchange, for fear of her mother’s disapproval and a subsequently tighter grip on her social life.
These three characters offer the sharpest analysis of the movie’s theme, but their spotlight is stolen by the tacked-on and otherwise facile stories featured in the rest of the film. Each plotline belies a sliver of hope for a triumphant story, but when they’re all mixed together, it only dilutes the cocktail that is Men, Women & Children. Jason Reitman’s venture into ensemble storytelling falls victim to cliche: too much to say and too little time to say it.
It is an ironic stroke of either pessimistic brilliance or sheer luck that Voyager 1 is the continued motif within the film: the satellite is best known for its Golden Record, which aims to communicate with others, but in reality its essential mission is simply to observe and broadcast. Men, Women & Children seems to aspire to a similarly profound message, but it offers only a one-dimensional portrait of the times without communicating anything at all.