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Film Review: Men, Women & Children

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☆☆☆

How we communicate is starting to fascinate people again. Instead of just looking at people talking, our art is starting to interrogate the way we talk.

Jason Reitman’s uneven and awkward comedy drama (that description is loose and I will return to it later) aims to put social media under the microscope. To do this, it has a sprawling cast of characters. It’s like Magnolia with iPhones, but with more laughs, or The Hours with tumblr with no Philip Glass.

Reitman’s films have more often than not tried to be quirky and serious, funny and sad, light and slightly-dark-ish.

Up in the Air is the picture that gets this spot on, although Juno and Young Adult are by no means failures. All three of those films have a winning sensibility and both a dramatic and comedic intelligence that drive the viewer through their occasionally awkward plots.

Men, Women & Children, however, is a difficult one. It can’t decide if it wants to be a comedy about middle-aged men watching porn, a serious comment on our lack of person-to-person communication, a film about marriage breakdown, panic in suburbia and eating disorders, a visual essay on the sexualisation of childhood or a star-crossed-lovers romance. It tries to do all of these and ends up wandering into an oblivion of its own making.

It only feels like yesterday Jason Reitman’s drama Labor Day hit cinemas (it was released nine months ago and was a bit of a box office failure). It was a sumptuous, superbly acted drama with both menace and warmth.

It premiered at the London Film Festival with Oscar buzz for its two leads, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. But audiences didn’t take to it, the buzz led to nothing and it made barely any money. It was also painfully mis-sold as a Nicholas Sparks-esque honey-flavoured romance.

However, the levels of deception going on with Paramount’s marketing of Men, Women & Children, however, beats the Labor Day incident hands-down. At first there was the trailer that went for a post-Fincher, cool, Social-Networky vibe with rumbling electronic music and a touch of menace.

It went around the cast, which includes Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Kaitlyn Dever, Roseamrie DeWitt, Dean Norris, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, Olivia Crocicchia and others. It was fairly accurate, though played down the comedy side of the film.

However, all that was to change. Perhaps there was a touch of cold feet about the awkward tone of the film (studios seem scared stiff of intelligent adult dramas these days), but suddenly the release date was changed and a new trailer hit cinemas and YouTube. Entirely recut, with a change of tone and feel that is quite breathtaking, this new trailer concentrates only on the teenage characters played by Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever.

It makes the film look like a syrupy romance, like The Fault in Our Stars, only with nagging parents instead of terminal illness as the mountain of adversity the teens need to climb over. It’s a shame, as this film already feels like it is having an identity crisis whilst you are watching it. Entirely mis-marketing it at a very particular audience (love-struck teenagers) it risks becoming not just misunderstood, but hated. If I went into the cinema expecting to see the film based on that second trailer I’d want my money back.

Of course, none of this is the fault of Reitman or his co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (at least one presumes it isn’t), but if their film had been more disciplined in its narrative mechanics the distributors may not have needed to be as shockingly deceptive. A major concern is the comedy side of the film and in the end the work is usually all left up to Emma Thompson’s amusing though strangely incongruous voiceover.

The film reminded me a lot of Todd Field’s fascinating yet confused suburban drama Little Children. That too had a voice-over issue and a juggling of themes. Most importantly, they have both been made by filmmakers and based on novels by authors who are keen to make us sit up and take notice about the little things and how those little things become big things without us realising.

Such a thing is difficult to pull off, but occasionally Reitman shows promise of brilliance at articulating exactly what it is he wants to say. It’s just a shame it gets a bit lost during the communication from concept to viewer. 

Men, Women & Children (2014) is released in cinemas on December 5, Certificate 15.

Watch two very different trailers below:

 

 

 

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