Wow. I’m really not exaggerating one bit when I say that Jason Reitman‘s adaptation of the Chad Kultgen novel Men, Women & Children is one of most heart wrenching things you’ll see this year. Luckily, it’s also one the best. In some ways this is Reitman’s most unique work to date, while in other ways it fits in perfectly with what he’s done his whole career. A perfect time capsule of how we live as a society currently and how removed we are in terms of interpersonal connections, particularly in regards to sex/sexuality, there’s plenty of discomfort during the nearly two hour running time, but don’t let that be a deterrent. Reitman will tug at your heartstrings, but so will the ensemble cast as well…all of whom are doing beautiful work. From veteran actors like Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, and Adam Sandler to younger ones like Kaitlyn Dever and Ansel Elgort, everyone more than does their part to ensure a successful transition of Kultgen’s words from the page to the screen (if you haven’t read his book, definitely do so, but be warned…it’s graphic stuff). Easily one of the most powerful films of 2014, it’s incredibly of the moment, and even if the actions on screen won’t shock you, you’ll recognize much of the population in it. Men, Women & Children is a tremendous achievement by Reitman and as good as anything I’ve seen all year. It’ll break your heart, stimulate your mind, and leave you gasping for air when it’s all over. I was absolutely blown away, both as a fan of the book and as a fan of Reitman. He’s working on a whole other artistic level here.
The film takes a look at the lives of a number of people in a smallish Texas town, narrated by Emma Thompson, no less, though we begin in space…something that will make sense, I assure you. There’s the Truby family, where father Don (Sandler) comes home from work to masturbate because wife Helen (DeWitt) doesn’t seem interested in sex anymore, while teenaged son Chris (Travis Tope) is obsessed with kinkier and kinkier pornography. Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia) wants to be famous and poses for scandalous photos that her mother Joan (Greer) puts on the internet in order to sell to whatever creep is willing to pay. She’s also the most sexually advanced girl in her class, picking Chris to help advance that rumor. Alison Doss (Elena Kampouris) wants to be as skinny as possibly, utilizing message boards to keep her from ever eating. Kent Mooney (Norris) recently had his wife run off, leaving him in a rut and his son Tim (Elgort) obsessed with the famous Pale Blue Dot essay. Tim quits the football team and loses himself in online gaming, though when he meets Brandy Beltmeyer (Dever), his interest is piqued. Brandy is the most normal girl we’ll be introduced to, but her mother Patricia (Garner) is an internet watchdog and spies on her ever web based move. All of these people will interact with each other, though rarely ever making eye contact when instead they can instant message or text. Sexuality will become an issue for all as well, with no one quite able to have a healthy sex life. Each individual could come off as a caricature, but it’s a credit to the actors, Reitman, and Kultgen’s source material that they always strike you as incredibly real and three dimensional people. What I’ve described is just the tip of the iceberg too.
This is an ensemble cast through and through, with everyone doing something to help this be the towering success that it is. Adam Sandler is probable the cast member most are interested in, and while this isn’t the best performance he’s ever given (though it’s definitely top five), it’s his clearest performance yet. There isn’t an ounce of the Sandler you’d normally seen in a movie here, as he’s completely withdrawn and beaten by life. His final scene is incredibly impressive and a marvelous display of restraint on his part. He gives one of the better performances here, though the quartet of Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, Judy Greer, and Dean Norris are best in show. Greer and Norris are the best of the best, with the former evolving from a borderline monster to someone horrified by what she’s allowed her daughter to become. The latter is the most normal adult, as well as the one most puzzled by technology. Norris will break your heart when he decides how to finally get through to his son. Dever and Elgort have top notch chemistry in a budding romance that’s one of the sweeter parts of the flick. They too will bring you to tears by the end. Rosemarier DeWitt and Jennifer Garner have smaller parts than you’d expect, but both bring something really interesting to what otherwise could have been more forgettable parts. Among the teens, the aforementioned Olivia Crocicchia and Elena Kampouris are impressive, while Travis Tope will straight up disturb you, while smaller parts are given to Timothée Chalamet and Katherine C. Hughes. As for the adults, we have the likes of Dennis Haysbert and J.K. Simmons on hand, while Emma Thompson pops in from time to time with narration. I can see Thompson’s work dividing people, but she’s perfect to me for reading some of the more salacious bits of the book. Everyone here is top notch.
Jason Reitman puts forth his most complete direction to date here, while also crafting a script with Erin Cressida Wilson that will haunt you. The two don’t lose any of Kultgen’s satire or devastating plot points at all, which was concerning to me. I didn’t really find any of it funny, which they probably were hoping for, but this works better as a drama anyway. Visually, this is Reitman’s finest work yet, with longtime DP Eric Steelberg outdoing himself. There are some images that will stay with you, especially when you see how they integrate various social media sites and messaging services. It’s the most successful movie to date to do so too. Reitman’s direction is flawless, as he gets pitch perfect work from his cast and paces the film brilliantly. It’s two hours that literally fly by. You’ll be drained by the time that it’s over, but it’s so amazing you’ll want to see more. Reitman also manages to convey a ton of disturbing sexual content without really ever showing nudity or actual sex scenes. What he suggests is what will break your heart and bring you to tears.
Awards wise, it really comes down to how the Academy sees this story. Best Picture is iffy, though Best Adapted Screenplay seems like it could certainly happen for Reitman and Wilson, who took a phenomenal book and translated it to the screen in a way that I wasn’t sure was going to be possible. With the performances, they’re all supporting, so if Picture is really in play, someone like Greer, Norris, or Sandler could be as well. Norris or Sandler could surprise in Best Supporting Actor, while Greer could in Best Supporting Actress, though all are longish shots, to be frank. Reitman sadly won’t really contend for Best Director, so it’ll be Screenplay or bust for him. He deserves something for this though, trust me there. Technically, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing (kudos to Dana E. Glauberman for some fantastic editing) are deserving, if unlikely without the Picture and Director push. Regardless, this is nomination worthy work all around, so perhaps the precursors will see fit to keep it in the conversation throughout the awards season.
Though some might not warm to Men, Women & Children and thus keep it from major awards contention, I still find it to be nearly a masterpiece by Reitman. It might very well be the finest thing I’ve seen this year, and I’ve seen in the area of 200+ films in 2014, so that’s saying something. I can’t stress how terrific this movie is and what a must see I believe it to be. Men, Women & Children is like Requiem for a Dream crossed with The Social Network. A simplification involving two superior movies? Yes, but this is a brilliant film that will wind up very high on my year end top ten list, so that sort of praise is warranted. Don’t miss this one folks, I’m almost begging you. It’s a hard watch, but worth every single minute.
Read Editor-in-Chief Clayton Davis’ take on the film HERE.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!