Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children is not quite the unmitigated disaster that some early critics may have cited, but that does not mean to suggest that it is a good film. It is, rather, a messy and simplistic film that tackles ideas well beyond its reach. It’s ambitious, though it’s all half realized and problematically schemed. It remains a film of intriguing pull though, if only because it leaves so many things unresolved and at times feels too absurd to take very seriously.
Men, Women & Children opens with a narrator (Emma Thompson) discussing the Voyager spacecraft. Its journey to the outer reaches of our solar system operates in direct opposition to the narrow-minded exploits of the film’s central characters. In this case, the characters that populate the film are knee-deep in some sort of cyber vice, whether it is a married man’s penchant for consuming pornography or a young boy finding solace from the abandonment of his mother with a MMORPG. The comfort of a glowing monitor or screen is enough for these people to get by from the drudgery of Real Life.
The plotting fails to develop in a momentous sort of way. Reitman makes great of use of music throughout to unite sequences, and the desired effect to unite many narrative threads within a musical arrangement works. A particular highlight involves two cheating spouses (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) set to Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone” - an on-the-nose but nevertheless well-constructed piece of music editing. But these are arrangements in a larger piece that don’t blend in a particularly harmonious way - there’s simply not much to the film’s construction that renders any of its heavy material as especially cathartic or insightful. If the film were constructed with a bit more finesse, the flaccid ideas could have achieved some measure of poignancy. But with intercutting sequences of the Voyager spacecraft hammering in the vastness of its scope, the film operates under some ridiculous pretenses on the weightiness of its subject.
This predisposed sense of entitlement to its weighty subject becomes increasingly uncomfortable as the film begins to make some grating accusations against all of its women characters. Reitman presents his women characters as the ostensibly flawed. They are victims of ridicule and do not hold positions of judgment - they are the ones being judged or instigators of peril. In this film, a husband and wife may cheat but it is the husband who underscores the terms of their future. In this film, a young girl’s miscarriage is met with the disappointed gaze of her father, who simply could not believe that his daughter is having sex. And in this film, a woman revels in a boy’s sexual inadequacy, portrayed as a manipulator despite the boy’s own sordid sexual proclivities. Men are overseers; women and children are simply the chaotic distractions of inconvenience.
Okay, perhaps Men, Women & Children is an unmitigated disaster.