Combustible Celluloid
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With: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Crocicchia, Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, Katherine C. Hughes, Elena Kampouris, Will Peltz, Travis Tope, David Denman, Dennis Haysbert, J.K. Simmons, Colby Arps, Tori Black, Emma Thompson (narrator)
Written by: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a novel by Chad Kultgen
Directed by: Jason Reitman
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout-some involving teens, and for language
Running Time: 119
Date: 10/03/2014

Men, Women & Children (2014)

2 Stars (out of 4)

The Text Generation

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

To start, Men, Women & Children seems like a generic title that would cover just about any story (unless it's one about animals). Then, Jason Reitman's sixth feature film begins with a description of the Voyager probe, and how it was sent out into space with various recordings of examples of human life, and how it makes us all seem so very insignificant, occupying a tiny spot in a vast universe. One character even asserts, more than once, about how meaningless everything is. We could disappear tomorrow, and it wouldn't make any difference. Sigh.

Then, after all that, the movie plunges into a multi-character story that seems to want to capture a specific time and place, a living snapshot, but the tone has been set. There no real reason to care about these folks. Perhaps a little more focus and a little more nuance could have made a much better movie, but the half-observed behaviors of all of them make for a dud.

I was hoping that Adam Sandler, at least, would be taken out of his comfort zone with this film, but he is not challenged at all. He plays Don, stuck in a rut in his marriage to Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), and wearily masturbating to internet porn when he suddenly gets the idea to have an affair with a prostitute. Simultaneously, Helen signs up for the notorious (real) "affair" website Ashley Madison and meets a married man (Dennis Haysbert) for sex. I wish I could say that this story went somewhere, but it just kind of... stops.

The most interesting story involves a teen football star, Tim (Ansel Elgort), who quits because, "what's the point?" and spends his newly free hours playing an online dungeon game. He finds himself drawn to Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who actually reads books in a school when every other teen's head is bent over a device. Unfortunately, Brandy is not so easy to date, since her maniacal mom (Jennifer Garner) monitors all of her online activity and often deletes messages before Brandy has a chance to see them. Garner's character is so one-dimensionally hysterical and evil that she, alone, makes an argument for keeping the internet as is.

Tim's dad is Kent (Dean Norris). It's just the two guys since Tim's mom ran off to be with another guy in California; he sees her happy Facebook photos, just to rub it in. (Has she no shame?) Kent eventually meets single mom Donna (Judy Greer). They like each other, but unfortunately, Donna regularly shoots dirty pictures of her sexy teen daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) and posts them on a pay-website. Hannah, meanwhile, has a thing for Don's son (reminder: Don is the Adam Sandler character) whose name is Chris (Travis Tope). Chris is a football player and addicted to depraved internet porn. He's so far gone that even the ripe, pert Hannah can't get him excited in real life.

There's another subplot about a thin, obsessively dieting cheerleader who likes a football player and will try anything to get her first kiss with him. This guy is even more evil than Garner's character, encouraging her malnutrition and bullying her into bed.

These kinds of movies used to be fun, watching a bunch of characters wandering around and connecting with each other. Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993) was a great one. But then came Crash, which is perhaps the most loathed of all the Oscar-winners for Best Picture, and one of the most copied. Now when people make multiple-storyline movies, they have to be very serious and take on important issues. I'm not sure which is worse, a preachy movie with a simplistic message ("racism is bad"), or a preachy movie that doesn't even know what its message is ("life is meaningless, life is meaningful, the internet is bad, the internet is good").

Some of these characters are interesting, and it would have been great to see, for example, an entire movie just about Tim and Brandy. They are the only ones who seem able to live offline, like their date to a quarry, lying on a blanket and looking up at the stars, Brandy resting her head on Tim's chest. That's a nice moment, a human connection that speaks volumes without any talking, texting, or noise.

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