The original version of this review was published in the comments at The Dissolve in response to Scott Tobias’ negative review of Men, Women & Children. Spoiler Warning.
I appreciate the fact that Scott Tobias and Mike D’Angelo have a different opinion than me. It’s hypocritical and unfair to think that their opinion is in any way wrong, objectively. It’s really frustrating, though, when the film both of them review is nothing like the empathetic, warm, accepting, even beautiful film I saw at TIFF. It’s not just that I’m a softie (although that’s certainly true), it’s that both this review and D’Angelo’s on The A.V. Club are completely dismissive, to the point that they ignore huge chunks of the movie. Mainly, the movie isn’t alarmist and anti-internet at all; if anything, it’s completely pro-internet. I apologize in advance if this comes out any more harsh towards Tobias or D’Angelo than it’s intended to be – I just feel defensive about this unfairly maligned movie.
First, the flaws. There are a couple of big flaws that threaten to undermine the movie, both of which are positioned at inopportune placements in the film and make naysayers’ opinions somewhat more understandable. The smaller of the two is that Garner is a caricature of the alarmist, older-generational sensibility negative reviews seem to suggest the movie embodies. The film is thoroughly critical of her, but there’s no nuance to her character – the fact she learns a lesson at the end is the only sense of a secondary character trait throughout. The biggest flaw is that the first thirty minutes or so is a noxious unforgiving condescending sludge of a black comedy. It’s where Sandler is a pathetic porn addict trolling his son’s web history, the kids at high school are snarky dickweeds and byotches that sext during class, and Judy Greer is the LA mom that whores out her daughter. Reitman pulled off black comedy incredibly well with Young Adult, but this was just nauseatingly off-putting. I went into the movie with negative expectations based on that awful teaser trailer, and they were being surpassed.
From there, though, the movie completely changes in tone; and it’s not merely good from here on, it’s great to the point that it more than makes up for the miscalculated beginning. Apologies, because I’m going to basically summarize each subplot and analyze the complexity and humanism behind each story thread to prove my point. I have some time on my hands.
1) Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt use the internet to have affairs. Sandler uses an escort service, and DeWitt uses Ashley Madison. They both do so in order to rediscover the intimacy they’ve lost in their marriage (that Sandler’s porn addiction is a result, not a cause, of). But the intimacy they’ve lost is established comes not from disdain or disinterest in each other’s partner, but a lack of self-esteem. Their distance is not caused by the internet or cell phones or something, but the simple fatigue that can come with being a suburban parent, the kind that wears on a person’s vitality. Their sex life is in the pits only because they don’t know how to recapture the exciting sexual energy they once had. Curbing expectations, their outcomes are wholly positive; Sandler therapeutically airs his feelings of inadequacy with his wife to the escort, and DeWitt shares a few intimate, fulfilling encounters with Dennis Haysbert. Sandler is ultimately the first to discover the other is cheating, but his resolution is to call a spade a spade; he understands that both of them are feeling the same way, and that their love for each other still exists beneath the barrier they had built between themselves. Their future sex lives are made ambiguous, but the sex itself isn’t ultimately what mattered – it’s how they become able to acknowledge that their sex lives shouldn’t determine their self-image, with the help of the internet. This was my favourite subplot; Sandler was legitimately really good, and DeWitt is becoming one of my favourite character actors.
2) Judy Greer uploads racy photos of her daughter, Hannah, to the internet. It’s a little icky, but there’s an interesting feminist subtext here. Greer is conditioning her daughter to believe she needs to be sexual to get what she wants. Greer is living vicariously through her daughter, of course, but it also speaks to how Greer views herself; too old to be accepted by the world as a sexual person, she channels her desire to be sexual through her daughter. Greer and Dean Norris start a relationship based around their shared loneliness, one that remains strong until Norris discovers her website. On the other hand, Hannah and Sandler’s son, Chris, start a flirtmance, but sexual connection between them is undercut by Chris’s inability to perform (more on that later). Hannah, conditioned the way she was, takes it very personally, and she breaks up with him. This is more a comment about celebrity culture, rather than about the internet.
3) Jennifer Garner cuts off her daughter, Brandy, from social networking and social life in general. Like I mentioned, this is the weakest subplot, but it at least establishes that Garner is a loving, caring mother – just one who is suffocating to the point of abuse. Her actions drive the near-tragic climax unfortunately out of mere necessity. The point made, though, isn’t that Garner is overreacting to the problem of social media – it’s that she’s overreacting, period. When Brandy uses social media, it’s to connect with Ansel Elgort, a person who shares her discontent for high school life and the norms of their conservative society. They honestly have a really adorable romance. (Their chemistry is scorchin’, too. Just sayin’.)
4) Ansel Elgort quits the football team and starts addictively playing Guild Wars. Again, the addictive behaviour is a symptom, not a cause, of his depression. It’s pretty well-established he has major depression through his nihilist philosophy and conversations with his therapist, and Guild Wars is one of his ways of coping. He quits the football team simply because he doesn’t fit, having been pressured by the Southern culture he inhabits. When his father (Dean Norris) uninstalls Guild Wars and Garner, pretending to be her daughter, texts Elgort to eff off, he attempts suicide because his only sources of relief from depression are jarringly cut off. The movie knows it’s not internet’s fault – it’s the fault of precisely the people who have alarmist opinions about the internet.
5) Teenaged Allison (who isn’t really related to anyone else, actually) has anorexia and crushes after the school jerk hunk. This subplot proves to be the least internet-friendly, as Allison visits a pro-anorexia blog, but it’s just as critical of the high school system as it is of the internet. There’s nothing wrong with the subplot, but it’s nothing special; it’s a seemingly-not-unrealistic representation of anorexia, a topic which isn’t inherently exploitative or manipulative. The movie would be unsubstantial if there weren’t other plots, but it’s not an offensive story, and it’s the type that could theoretically prove useful to a young woman. The final dramatic payoff is satisfying too, just understated enough to undermine any possible hysterics the story could have achieved.
6) Sandler’s son, Chris, is discovering his interest in BDSM. I consider myself a vanilla masochist, so I was very, very worried when this plot was initially developed. Surprisingly, it’s one of the best representations of being BDSM I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie – heck, any movie in general. Chris attempts to communicate to Hannah, his flirtmance, with kinky sexts. She brushes them off, but the effect on him is both disappointing and alienating; he feels that he has to discover and explore sex in a certain way, a way that he isn’t interested in or comfortable with. When he can’t perform for Hannah and she dumps him, there isn’t any further resolution beyond a sense of frustration on his part. And it’s the perfectly realistic ending – he’s just a teenager, and he’s only really discovering these interests just now, so he’s probably not likely to explore BDSM-centric social media or communities at this point in time. High school dating is the only world he knows, and the judgmental nature of high school leaves him unable to reach out to any of his peers. And, again, internet is not at all the problem here. I wish there was more time devoted to this storyline – it could have been my favourite of the bunch.
7) Finally, the outer space bookend is certainly pretentious at first, but the movie undermines its own original point with a really beautiful re-contextualization. The launch of the Voyager is tied with Carl Sagan’s famous quote about how small the Earth is. Elgort’s character later depressively interprets this quote as a comment on how insignificant humankind is. But the movie ends with the full quote, which is about the community of humankind, the responsibility of people to care for each other. It really clinches how pro-technology the movie is; social media has provided, to children and adults alike, support structures that these people wholly value.
Men, Women & Children deserves a chance. After the terrible first thirty minutes, it has the same warmth and love for its characters Reitman applied in Juno and Up in the Air – if you’ve missed that sort of sensibility, Men, Women & Children has it in spades.