Men, Women & Children

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“Before you go I want to give you a pamphlet on the danger of selfies.”

Technological advancements are inevitable. We’re a species that survives off of discovery, of finding out the new, differentiating the good from the bad. It’s woven into our DNA. We crave attention and our countless gadgets and gizmos help us facilitate that desire. They’ll undoubtedly one day become a part of us and we will no longer have that comforting wall of separation. The singularity is fast approaching. That’s not what Men, Women & Children is ever about, but at the same time it is, ever so subtly. We’re all actors, effortlessly changing false fronts and winning conversational games of charades by putting on a fake face or by shoving our noses into illuminated touchscreens. I can’t help but feel fraudulent saying that as I watch my keystrokes appear on the screen.

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This is an extremely dense film, both in the amount of characters and the chosen subject matter. Don Truby (Adam Sandler) is the tired and happily beer toting husband married to Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), an equally miserable cubicle worker looking to spice up her love life. Their son Chris (Travis Tope) is so deep into pornography that at the virile age of 15 he struggles to meet his desires through standard foreplay. Those problems happen with Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). She’s the pretty and manipulative cheerleader whose failed actress mother Donna (Judy Greer) plays a stage mom trying to get her little girl famous at whatever cost. Did I mention that only covers half of the story?

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Newly single after his wife abandoned him and his son, Kent Mooney (Dean Norris) is your standard middle-American man. Back in his glory days he was a standout high school football player. As is his running back son Tim (Ansel Elgort). That’s until he quits the team to spend his time pouring himself into the online game Guild Wars. Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever) is a little bit of an outcast, but not purposefully. She and Tim strike up a youthful romance, providing solace to the other when it is so desperately needed. But that’s nullified by her abrasive mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner), an infuriatingly possessive and controlling woman who treats her teenage daughter like she has a baby monitor tied around her neck.

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Guess what? That’s still not everything. There are smaller subplots about eating disorders, bullying, counseling, and teenage pregnancy. At two hours, the movie really jams it all in there. It’s an amalgamation, a harvest of every stock character you could possibly imagine. Throw the cast of American Beauty into the strange world of Magnolia and voila, this is what you’d get. By no surprise, director Jason Reitman makes its work. What a commendably daring outing this must have been for him. It has a strong billing of actors that will draw in some viewers, but this is a tough, alienating film resembling techniques and structure comparative to recent foreign features. Hell, the guy is willing to shoot sex scenes as a brief close up on a taut comforter slowly and pathetically pulling back and forth as well as another steady glimpse of a cheap gilded door knob and the audibles of what’s going on inside. It’s truly audacious and inspired work.

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What I loved most was its ability to stand above common American films and ask hard-hitting questions. Is this a pitting of parents versus kids divided by tremendous gaps and lapses of understanding? Does it have something to say about the secretive and hidden lives we’re easily able to live? What does it really mean to be “offline” or “online”? I’ve said this before, and to be honest, it’s refreshing to be able to repeat that I haven’t really seen a movie quite like it. I think that problem, coupled with the age of most film critics, helps explain the film’s poor reception. So much of this is real. In a generation that’s constantly blasted for being lazy or feeling entitled, you have to sympathize with them. I’ve experienced firsthand and seen others go through these things before. Everything is on point.

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If I had to make a time capsule, Men, Women & Children would work it’s way in there. That’s because it has a message to say and is never afraid to share it. The movie starts out in the cosmos, itself mere space dust in an endlessly commercialized Dyson vacuum, following the Voyager Space Probe and eventually coming back to earth to see Don Truby looking at porn on his sexually tormented son’s computer. Is technology to blame? No, I don’t think so. Technology is the result of progress. As was fire, and the wheel, and the telegraph, and so on. The incendiary problem might be even more rudimentary. Men, Women & Children seems to say our problems are linked to a willingness to imagine the truth or a demanding knowledge of exact certainty. Either way, it’s still ironic a message like this has to be shared through such a hypnotic two hour experience staring at a projected image. Forget six feet under. We might as well bury ourselves in our own spellblinding, pixelated oases.

“I think if I disappeared tomorrow, the universe wouldn’t really notice. There’s a girl though.”

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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