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Men, Women, and Children Review: A Preachy, Sobering Teen Tale

Men, Women, and Children will make you want to check your teen's computer... a lot.
In Director/Writer Jason Reitman's Men, Women, and Children we see a world where teens and the Internet have become inexorably attached, with one dependent on the other for everything except sustenance. Content to barely communicate outside of their phones and computers, teens live in a world where the sharing of porn and cyber-bullying one another for the smallest offense is a daily exercise right next to bulimia and sex. At least that's what Reitman wants you to believe. In this case, he would be mostly right: the movie does a solid job of frightening every parent into spot-checking their child's phones and diets from now until they're 30.

Following the lives of four families in Austin, Texas we learn of the sexually available cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) and her failed actress mother (Judy Greer), who posts racy photos of her daughter hoping to win a competition to be “America’s Next Big Celebrity.” There's the overly-protective Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who incessantly checks the phone and computer of her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) hoping to expose and punish her for making bad choices. She soon falls for the former star running back (Ansel Elgort), a deeply confused teen that his father Kent (Dean Norris) has no idea how to reach. With one family suddenly torn apart by his ex-wife's infidelity, another is about to implode, as Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) turn to online dating sites rather than deal with their problems. As these and other stories twist their way to a bitter end, our families must turn to each other for support, especially when one decides to take their own life.

Reitman and co-Writer Erin Cressida Wilson do a good job of juggling the many elements from the novel by Chad Kultgen. They're simply not afraid to cast the darkest view of teens I've seen in quite awhile, and the results are unexpected. But what makes the film succeed is not the controversy they dig up but the combination of several interconnected stories and the top-shelf cast that actually have a chance to tell their stories. Each character is completely out of their league, unable to see the impending disaster in front of them, and just like the 'RL' (real life) moniker uttered several times, they have no idea of the damage each of them is causing. And just like reality, they take largely unsuccessful steps to rationalize their positions until at last being forced to solve them, lending it a dose of needed humanity.

The best of our troupe are Garner and Greer, who portray their intensely screwed up characters representing opposite sides of the spectrum. Their stories are a bit tragic, but the performances make each world seem completely believable even though we know they're not in the least bit acceptable. When each arrives at their inevitable conclusions - in other words, The Real World - we feel both a sense of relief and sadness that they put themselves and their families in those spots in the first place. That's the sort of movie we can relate to, one in which our every day struggles mirror those we see on the big screen. Such an experience can go a long way to help people rise up from their current situations, and Men, Women, and Children almost becomes a kind adviser to us.

A large-and-in-charge Sandler is actually...good here, learning about his wife's infidelity while he himself embarks on an ill-advised tryst. DeWitt is also memorable, playing the mom who sees Don as a shadow of his former self, but who has no idea what porn has done to him. Dennis Haysbert arrives with quintessential cool as Helen's first fling, but other stars drop their money on the table to deliver similarly memorable performances. There's the son Travis Tope whose similar addiction to extreme porn makes him physically unable to perform, while Morris' failed marriage hangs over him like cloud. Elgort, Dever, and Crocicchia drive much of the movie, and their stories by themselves would have made an entertaining two hours.

We also have the bulimia story featuring Elena Kampouris as a pencil-thin waif who bows to the pressures of sex and starvation to fit in. In these young actors, we see a world fundamentally changed by iPhones and the Internet, a wild west where everyone is connected and yet alone, where social skills have eroded as have our morals. Reitman weaves each of these stories with good results, even if the tone does become too preachy at points. It's a sobering tale to be sure, and I think parents will leave the theater to immediately seek their children's electronic device to learn what deviancy is contained within. Most of this might seem too much, especially when you add Emma Thompson as narrator while the Voyager spacecraft careens to its destiny in deep space. But, the film moves along quite well, giving each story the time it needs without overdoing any of them.

Men, Women, and Children won't serve as a wakeup call to teens, the ones who probably need it the most, because they've never known a world without the Connected Life. This is not The Breakfast Club, but its message is right on point. Adults are surely to be drawn in, so let's hope a teachable moment arrives that will allow our general addiction to our devices to mature into something more balanced. If this film can at least get the conversation started, I'd count it as a success.

Men, Women, and Children is rated R for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout-some involving teens, and for language and has a runtime of 119 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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