Since 2005’s “Thank You For Smoking,” director Jason Reitman, son of Ivan, has enjoyed a successful career of quirky and conservative comedies, either adapted from popular novels or written by stripper-turned-writer Diablo Cody. His popularity with the Hollywood elite peaked in 2010, when his film “Up in the Air” scored 3 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. But in recent years, Reitman has failed to impress both audiences and critics after directing what was arguably his best film to date.
2011’s “Young Adult” was a surprising departure from Reitman’s funny. It was neither particularly hopeful nor laden with the libertarian themes that had characterized all of his previous work. Instead, it was a step in the right direction for both Reitman and Cody, who drafted the script, and hopes were high that the duo might be on the road to creating their best work yet.
This was most definitely not true of Cody, whose follow up film, “Paradise,” is particularly awful. But what happened next in Reitman’s career may have been an even bigger surprise. In early 2014, Reitman released his newest film, “Labor Day,” a melodrama that was, at best, a narrow step above the average Nicholas Sparks adaptation. That Reitman felt the need to reframe the lens of the modern romance film from an artistic lens is completely acceptable, and while the results weren’t what one could have hoped for, it was another bold move in Reitman’s increasingly diverse career.
What came next, however, may be the nail in the coffin on Reitman’s career. Only 10 months after “Labor Day,” Reitman released another film, this one entitled “Men, Women & Children,” based on the eye-opening, disturbing, and brilliant novel by cult writer Chad Kultgen. An ensemble film about a group of suburbanites in a Texas town, the film was poised to be Reitman’s return to the top. Equipped with a stellar cast and some even more impressive source material, there was nearly no way that Reitman, a man who has not only adapted but improved upon many of the novels from which he takes inspiration, could mess this up.
The film stars Ansel Elgort as Tim Mooney, a high school sophomore who’s decided that, after watching Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” that life and football are both meaningless. Content to spend the remainder of his days in his room playing an online game called “Guild Wars,” Tim faces scrutiny from his father, Kent (Dean Norris), and his former teammates, who have taken to sending him anonymous threats via text message. With his newfound free time, Tim begins to date the quietly intelligent Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever), whose overprotective mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) hosts weekly safety sessions with concerned parents of tech-savvy teenagers, and monitors her daughter’s every keystroke.
Meanwhile, Don Truby (Adam Sandler) and his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are entering the permanently sexless stage of their marriage, while their son Chris (Travis Tope) begins testing the limits of his sexuality with aberrant pornography that renders him unable to be aroused by “vanilla” imagery. Meanwhile, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), an aspiring starlet who hosts a questionable photography website with her mother Joan (Judy Greer), takes an interest in Chris when she realizes that he might be the best shot she has at losing her virginity before junior year.
Finally, there’s poor Allison Doss, a beautiful young woman who has taken to developing an eating disorder after a boy in freshman year said he was willing to hook up with her “if I could find the hole.” Together, these fractured personalities make up Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” a flailing, messy, and spectacularly poor film that drags down far too much talent and butchers too much important social commentary to simply be ignored.
As with any adaptation, Reitman took artistic liberties to make his adaptation more “cinematic.” With films like “Up in the Air,” his changes were probably for the better, taking an unfocused novel full of potential and turning it into one of the year’s most beloved films. When it comes to adapting the works of other screenwriters, like Diablo Cody, Reitman is particularly adept at maintaining the tone and style of the work being adapted, and films like “Juno” are a perfect example of how great Reitman’s work can be when he’s at his best.
But there’s something hollow about “Men, Women & Children.” As a film, its technical aspects are nothing impressive, and Reitman’s lack of visual connection between unrelated stories on all but one occasion is something of a disappoint, but the real issue with this film lies deep beneath even that. It seems that, in adapting the novel, Reitman has blatantly missed the point of Kultgen’s work. Instead of producing a potentially important work, he has shamelessly rewritten it to be a crowd-pleasing, shapeless amalgamation of scenes with almost no relation to the novel past character names and the events that transpire; but even some of that gets butchered in the process. A brief disclaimer: if you have not read or seen “Men, Women & Children,” and do not want to have its content spoiled, I suggest you stop reading here.
Firstly, it’s important to note that the characters of Kultgen’s novel are not high school sophomores. Hell, they’re not even in high school. They’re eighth graders, and everything that happens to them is far more disturbing and relevant because of their age. It’s a crucial component of the story, and Reitman’s decision to age them to high school dilutes the foundation of Kultgen’s message, which is that sexuality advances far more quickly than we’re equipped to handle in the age of technology.
I’d also like to point out that, in Reitman’s film, two very important characters have been reduced to bit parts that serve as little more than glorified extras. The characters are Danny Vance and Brooke Benton, who are portrayed by Timothee Chalamet and Katherine C. Hughes, respectively, in the film. In Kultgen’s novel, these two characters were arguably the primary protagonists behind Chris Truby, and they represented a very important shift in perception as the novel progressed.
In the story, Chris Truby and Tim Mooney are polar opposites. One is a sexual deviant, while the other seems all but completely disinterested in the prospect of sexual intercourse with anyone, even his girlfriend. Danny, however, represents the realistic middle ground: interested in sex but not necessarily obsessed with it. At the beginning of the novel, one could compare him more with Tim Mooney. But by the end, his transformation into a hateful, harmful young man aligns his actions more closely with those of Chris Truby. Kultgen deliberately uses these characters to expose how susceptible we all are to self-destruction in today’s techno-centric society, but Reitman emits them almost entirely, leaving his film without a spine from which to expand.
Even so, an unassuming audience member could reasonably be expected to enjoy the film without this tidbit of information, so it can be chalked up to time constraints. Fine, I don’t like it, but I can live with it. What I can’t live with, though, is how Reitman seems to have vacuumed out the nuance from every single character in this film, constantly manipulating them to fit his own agenda, until they’re all just extensions of one another by the end of the film. There’s nothing particularly distinguishable about any of these characters past the immediate information fed to us through Emma Thompson’s unnecessary voiceover work.
The greatest indignity in this department comes in the development of Chris Truby, who’s reduced to little more than a bad joke. His sexual dysfunction is one of the cruxes of the novel’s themes, and instead of exploring what makes him so fascinating, Reitman seems content to bury him in the countless plot threads, giving him screentime whenever he feels like things should be a little bit more “daring.” Truby’s peculiar sexual desires, which are necessary to the progression of the plot, are explored far more in the novel, but are almost entirely erased from the film. It’s as if Reitman closed his eyes and started humming softly to himself whenever Truby’s abnormalities were brought into the foreground.
This brings me to my next point: for a film that should be as concerned with sexuality as it is with its techno-phobic agenda, “Men, Women & Children” has no sex scenes. Kultgen deliberately used sex scenes to reveal certain traits about the characters that couldn’t have been understood otherwise, focusing less on the eroticism of the act and more of the stream-of-consciousness that invades each character during their respective sexual encounters. Allison Doss’ plot thread, which involves an issue with bulimia that isn’t even hinted at in the film, hinges on a sexual encounter between her and an older boy that eventually leads to a pregnancy. Reitman handles these moments with kid gloves, filming an exterior shot with some light sound design instead of giving audiences the probing and insightful look into adolescent sexuality that they need.
The only thing close to a sex scene in the film is, predictably, played for laughs. Another moment where the Truby’s engage in separate affairs for the first time is treated as a farce, set to smooth R&B with a multitude of pratfalls, punchlines, and awkward reveals that do nothing but trivialize the material in the worst way possible. Kudos to Adam Sandler for giving a really fantastic, subdued performance, but it’s a shame that he’s expected to reach into the same bag of tricks that he’s been relying on for two decades whenever Reitman feels that things are becoming too serious. Sure, Kultgen’s novel uses laughs to diffuse the tension, but only when the time is right. Reitman’s film doesn’t seem to be so aware of its purpose, and punctuates scenes with a comedic undertone when there clearly shouldn’t be any.
I would actually like to point out something that I think Reitman improved from Kultgen’s novel, and that is the blossoming romance between Tim Mooney and Brandy Beltmeyer. Played beautifully by Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, this particularly sweet subplot works almost entirely thanks to a pair of excellent performances, but I do believe that Reitman succeeded in giving both characters a personality that I felt was oddly lacking in the novel, where they represent some sense of normalcy among a community of chaos. Admittedly, Tim’s battle against depression isn’t handled well at all, which makes his third act suicide attempt even more confusing – and the couple’s first date at the gorgeous waterfall completely misses the point of what Kultgen was trying to do in the novel – but I think Reitman handled these characters very well despite everything that went wrong.
Finally, I feel that it’s my duty to verbally demolish the third act of this film, which goes far beyond the limitations of artistic license and into the realm of unhinged insanity. To quickly recap the ending of the novel: Tim attempts suicide with no knowledge that Brandy wasn’t the one who broke up with him via MySpace; Hannah promises Chris any sexual favor he can imagine, but only if he helps her start her own pornography site; Danny violently takes Brooke’s virginity, erasing all the trust and security they had built with each other during their relationship; and both Don and Helen continue their affairs, refusing to acknowledge the fact that their significant other is probably engaged in extramarital “activities.”
Reitman’s film has other things on its mind. Instead of allowing their affairs to continue undisturbed, Don takes it upon himself to expose Helen during one of her rendezvouses, only to tell her the next morning, while making eggs, that neither of them should divulge the other halves of their double lives. Brandy’s mom, instead of simply breaking up with Tim on her daughter’s behalf, becomes the monster she so vehemently tries to prevent her daughter from meeting, going so far as to assume her daughter’s identity and tell Tim that she never liked him at all, which is the catalyst for Tim’s suicide.
Here’s where things get a little out of hand. Just to be nitpicky, I should probably point out that Tim decides to overdose on his medication instead of cutting open his legs, but it’s the method of his attempt that leads to a contrived discovery scene, which leads to an even more contrived emotional catharsis. Instead of having his father discover him, which makes much more sense thematically, Reitman decides that Brandy should flee to Tim’s house after her mother discovers her online alter ego (which also does not happen in the novel; a nice touch by Kultgen that really accentuated how deeply in denial Patricia was about her own daughter) only to find him unconscious on the floor with a bottle of pills stuffed into his stomach. As for Hannah and Chris, neither of them get much resolution, with Hannah simply storming off after her mother reveals that she took down the website, while Chris isn’t seen again after Hannah reveals her true intentions to use him for sex.
Later at the hospital, Brandy calls Tim beautiful, and Patricia looks on from afar as she realizes the implications of her actions. Instead of going with the obvious “this doesn’t happen in the book,” I’d just like to point out why Reitman’s liberties ultimately hurt his deeply flawed film even more. Although I truly enjoyed Don and Helen’s final confrontation in the film – also the final moments between Tim and Brandy did strike a chord with me – Reitman’s abandonment of a perfectly serviceable ending is just a disappointing bookend to an extremely underwhelming film.
Ultimately, it’s Reitman’s film to do with as he wishes, but Kultgen’s writing deserves a better adaptation than this one, particularly because this is his most thematically rich work. “Men, Women & Children” the novel is almost unclassifiable, operating within its own terms, written by a man who is constantly aware of the truth that he’s printing on the page. Reitman’s film is not nearly as sure-footed, using the novel as more of a loose guideline for the director to push his techno-phobic agenda, while heavily downplaying the themes involving sexual dysfunction, which are arguably more present in the novel than the technological aspects.
Selling a true adaptation of “Men, Women & Children” is no easy task, but from its opening moments, Reitman’s film just doesn’t have the audacity to go where it should, regularly detouring off the beaten path into something far more saccharine and trite than it needs to be, especially something that bears Kultgen’s name. Whether this is the end of Reitman’s creative rut or the beginning of the end for his career, “Men, Women, & Children” is not the film it should, or could, be. Instead, it’s a whole lot of nothing.Continue Reading Issue #22