Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: "Men, Women & Children"

"Men, Women & Children" is an audacious, ambitious film that dives into the deep end of cinematic contemplation and, eventually, disappears beneath the ripples it commenced. But not before a heroic effort.

It's not so much a coherent story as a mirror turned around at the audience, daring them to consider how we live today, how the digital age has bent and distorted the way we approach love and sex -- especially teenagers, who have never lived in a world without instant communication and universal access to visual gratification.

This is one of the rare movies I wish was longer; its sprawling narrative and heady themes needed more space to give themselves a full workout. Director and co-writer Jason Reitman ("Up in the Air") ends up drowning in the same trouble that afflicts most films with large ensemble casts and intersecting storylines: it moves on too quickly when it should linger, and tarries when it has outlasted its purpose.

If the notion of underage kids communicating graphically about what they'd like to do to each other is shocking to you, then you might sympathize with Patricia, played by Jennifer Garner. She monitors every step her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) takes online -- she reads the girl's text messages before she sees them, deleting if she finds them objectionable. Using tracking software on Brandy's phone, mom knows her daughter's whereabouts 24/7. Indeed, Patricia, with her pained expression and wounded eyes, doesn't seem to have a job or a personal life, only a cause: to keep kids safe online -- even if it means stripping them of any semblance of freedom.

Needless to say, Brandy is driven to seek release, and finds it with Tim (Ansel Elgort), another wayward soul. He's the star running back of the football team, but quits mid-season so he can have more time to play Guild Wars, an online role-playing video game. He's bereft by a personal loss, and in Brandy sees a companion with whom to drift. They plug the rents in each other's fragile psyches, forming a relationship that is -- by the standards of other couplings in the film -- remarkably healthy and not dictated by sex.

On the other extreme is Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a 16-year-old who flaunts her sexuality instinctively, aided by a mother (Judy Greer) who enables her Hollywood ambitions. They take risqué, but not obscene, photos of her and post them on a website -- including private shoots for paying customers. What's scarier than the idea of a mother basically pimping out her daughter is that neither seems to fully grasp the impact of what they're doing.

Most affecting is the story of Allison (Elena Kampouris), a painfully thin girl wracked by twin, intermarried crucibles: anorexia and being the last female (she thinks) in her social circle who hasn't "hooked up." She visits websites where beauty-obsessed girls provide emotional support to willingly starve themselves -- Google it; they're real -- and fantasizes about the football player she's known since seventh grade. Her body is an unruly burden to her, both her corporeal heft (any) and her wretched virginity.

The stories of some of these kids' parents also float in and out of the foreground. Most notable, though not as interesting as it sounds, is Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt as a married couple whose sex life has turned cold, and they each use the Web to fulfill their needs with strangers.

It's an interesting idea, especially in that it's she craving sexual adventure while he mostly pines for simple intimacy, but their path seems more pathetic than dangerous. Meanwhile, their 15-year-old son has grown impotent after being burned out on hardcore porn.

"Men, Women & Children" gives us an almost entirely bleak view of lust in the 21st century, but that's not its problem. By focusing on too many characters and tales, the film's dark, brave message loses signal strength. There either needed to be a lot more of this movie, or a lot less.

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