As a parent, reading a book in that deals with tweens and their parents living in today’s society where everything is accessible with a cellphone, tablet or laptop, is a bit like strategic parenting. You read it so you can see the worst and prepare. Reading Men, Women and Children was a gut wrenching, anxiety inducing page turner but a very welcome one. The characters, though flawed, were relatable and you felt their pain even in the most uncomfortable of settings. The film, however, barely scrapes the surface, tethering more to a safe “edge” and although most of the cast gives some stellar performances (Adam Sandler, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, to name a few), the film falls short of hitting you where the book did- right in the gut.
The film focuses on four families that are all intertwined and narrated by a celestial being of sorts (Emma Thompson). Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie Dewitt) are living the boring, suburban lifestyle in a stereotypical sexless parenthood. While Don surfs online for porn and hookers, Helen opts for secret rendezvous with online lovers. Neither suspecting the other of any wrong doing. Right under their nose, their 15 year old son Chris (Travis Trope) is sexting with Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) but he has been so far desensitized by hard core smut online (we’re talking humiliation, bondage and then some) that having any normal teenage encounter is not possible.
Hannah, on the other hand, is an aspiring Hollywood star and lives with her failed actress mother, Donna (Judy Greer). Donna is very supportive of her daughter’s dreams. So supportive, in fact, that she also maintains Hannah’s “modeling” website where the pair sell subscriptions for access to “special” photos of Hannah that are requested by her “fans.”
Donna begins to question what she’s doing with the site, so she heads to a parents group headed by Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who obsessively checks, double checks and triple checks every possible website, keystroke or text her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) has ever sent or received. Not that Brandy has ever earned this mistrust, Patricia insists this is how she can protect her. Brandy, however, is a smart, almost- normal teenager of the whole group. While quietly reading (a book!!!), she attracts the interest of the school’s former football star, Tim (Ansel Elgort) who has recently withdrawn from his friends and social life after having his mom desert he and his father for California with another man. Tim and Brandy form a bond and eventually fall for each other as they become each other’s shining light in their troubled lives.
Tim’s dad, Kent (Dean Norris), silently worries about his son but also suffers from on and off depression from his wife leaving him. He makes no effort to move on, simply works, comes home and watches football as his son plays a RPG game in his room. Curious about this game, he attends the same parents group as Donna, where they meet, and he feels for the first time, he may be able to see a new life.
The film tries to tackle lots of heavy issues from eating disorders, teen sexuality, desensitization, infidelity, depression, suicide and more. While it addresses each issue, much like the book does, it fails to jump fully in, which the book truly does. It’s as if Reitman was afraid to fully explore the darkness that lies inside each character either by their situation or their flaws. Which is a bit disappointing considering some of the cast gave some truly heartfelt performances. Adam Sandler, in particular, ditches his goofy every guy routine for one of a deeper, more flawed father and it actually works. Judy Greer, another talent more known for her comedy, is fabulous as Donna…walking that fine line between horrible parent and naive with an ease I haven’t seen before. And, of course, Ansel as the depressed and detached Tim, is a perfect match.
While it may lack in deeper meaning, what Men, Women and Children does do is spark conversation. Have we truly become so desensitized and unwilling to communicate as a society, preffering devices or to hide behind a screen? Or rather than talk to your spouse or child about why you are so overprotective or aloof, you choose to helicopter or stray. Guess it depends on who you text.
Men, Women and Children is rated R and is now open in select theaters. Opens nationwide on October 17th.