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With all due respect to the male actors in the cast, I walked out of Jason Reitman’s latest drama Men, Women and Children in awe of the ladies… and its their troubling stories that continue to stick with me weeks after that initial screening.
If you have heard anything about Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Chad Kultgen’s novel, you know that it’s about “The Internet” (in a broad sense), and about how technology affects several members of a small Texas community. Reitman weaves through roughly 5 to 10 individual stories which intersect as Men, Women and Children probes its subjects – sometimes deeply, sometimes superficially. He doesn’t judge. He just observes, and waits for the audience to recognize and empathize with the characters of our choosing.
So why am I gravitating to the stories of three women? Because of the outstanding performances of Judy Greer, Jennifer Garner and Rosemarie DeWitt, all playing suburban wives and mothers with vastly different problems to bear. I don’t necessarily relate to any of them. Garner’s character is an overprotective shrew who monitors her only daughter’s every virtual move – not noticing how the young girl is maturing outside of her mother’s harsh gaze. And Greer plays an accidental monster – a mom who thinks she is helping her teenage daughter with her online modeling career. There’s a fine line between “legitimate online modeling” and “made-to-order child porn,” though.
But I understood these women, and I felt the pain they endured during Men, Women and Children. Not because I’ve been in their shoes, but because the powerful actresses made me understand what it’s like to be in their predicaments, the highs and lows of their individual journeys. None of these stories reflect my own. Yet I connected with pieces of them. And in a sprawling ensemble of actors all fighting for screen time, these three women developed their characters quicker than most, with Greer really establishing a heartbreaking superficiality to Joan that stings when her blinders ultimately are removed.
Remember, Jason Reitman doesn’t judge with Men, Women and Children. If there’s a downside to the movie, it’s that it lacks a central story providing a powerful throughline to which audiences can cling. Reitman starts his movie – intelligently, I might add – with the story of a satellite launched into space that’s meant to communicate with alien life forms, should they be discovered. That satellite was equipped with the music and lyrics of its era, making it a floating time capsule of a specific time. And that is what Men, Women and Children can be described as – a time capsule of America’s communities at this particular moment. Most of the stories reach a resolution, of sorts, but each plot honestly could continue along for the duration of another movie, and in most cases, you wouldn’t complain.
To be honest, I still feel that Jason Reitman is at his best when he has a story to tell. The contemplative and engrossing Up in the Air, as an example, remains his high point (no pun intended). But the director seems content to linger on larger character studies in Men, Women and Children, capturing different types of people who are struggling to find their place in a tech-heavy time.
Reitman himself will tell you that Thank You For Smoking isn’t about cigarettes, Juno isn’t about teen pregnancy, and Men, Women and Children isn’t about the Internet. All of those films are about people, and from where I was sitting, the women emerged at the end with the better stories to tell.