Jason Reitman's "Men, Women & Children" aims to elucidate the dissonance between the copacetic personae we craft online and our true, emotionally damaged selves - the same terrain farmed in last year's "Disconnect."
Like that picture, it fails to capture the zeitgeist - Reitman's a big Cassandra, his worldview almost puritanical - but if you look past the ham-fisted, out-of-touch scenarios and dialogue and take it as a series of acting scenes, the movie is not without its pleasures. Chief among them is Rosemarie DeWitt, and I might as well turn this review into a fawning tribute, because as far as I'm concerned she can do no wrong. I wrote the following of DeWitt's performance as Hannah, sister to Emily Blunt's Iris, in 2012's four-star "Your Sister's Sister": "
[A]n extended sequence [between Hannah and Mark Duplass' Jack]…can only be called virtuoso…[It] runs for about 15 or 20 minutes, contains more honesty than most films in their entireties, and is buoyed by a gentle humor and generosity of spirit that inspires an almost protective goodwill. It's the sort of sequence you watch on emotional tippy-toes, praying the film will not step wrong and giddy when it doesn't. Every word, every glance, every interaction carries the ring of truth…In another exquisite scene…Iris, unable to sleep, comes into Hannah's bedroom…[Director Lynn] Shelton frames the shot with Iris slightly behind Hannah, such that Iris cannot see Hannah's face. Iris finally confesses to Hannah that she's in love with Jack, oblivious to what happened between Hannah and Jack the night before. Have you ever spent a scene [looking] back and forth between two actors' faces, not wanting to miss the tiniest movement, the slightest registering of emotion?That's how I felt in this scene, which is so rich and has so much going on, you want to rewind it as soon as it ends. For it to follow so quickly after the previous impeccable sequence is an embarrassment of riches…The picture is nothing short of a coming out party for [DeWitt], who's worked steadily in Hollywood for the better part of a decade but has finally been [served up] a terrific, substantial part, and has hit it out of the park.
I want to talk about two scenes of DeWitt's in "Men, Women & Children." She plays Helen Truby, a wife and mother dissatisfied with her marriage to Don (Adam Sandler). In the first scene, their son Chris (Travis Tope) and his new girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) interview Helen and Don about the morning of 9/11. They don't tell the kids this, but they were making love at the time. Later, they're sitting on the couch and Don asks, "So, how are you feeling?" "What, right now?" Helen answers. "It's been almost two months." "No, it hasn't." "Last time was after that barbecue at your sister's," Don notes, during which Helen sighs. It's the sigh - and the way she starts the "No, it hasn't" before Sandler's finished the "two months" - that set DeWitt apart. This is not a performer waiting for her co-star to get out his lines so she can recite hers. This is a terrific actress fully invested in her character and in the moment.
While reading in bed one night, Helen and Don see an ad for a website that connects married people seeking extramarital affairs. At her desk at work, Helen tentatively posts a profile on the site, taking a selfie in a sweater that amusingly shows only the sweater. She connects with the more practiced "Secretluvur" (Dennis Haysbert) and at length musters the courage to meet him at a hotel bar. DeWitt expertly straddles the line between awkward self-effacement and outright self-abnegation, showing us not only a woman who has forgotten how it feels to be desired but one who wants to remember, wants to enjoy sex again. When the scene proceeds to his hotel room upstairs, Haysbert (also exceptional) shows how this man can at once take charge of the moment while creating a comfort zone for Helen to reconnect to forgotten sensations and feelings. Helen allows herself to engage in some dirty talk, then half apologetically giggles, almost amazed the words could be coming out of her mouth. Haysbert starts to laugh with her, then shifts tacks, encouraging her with a guttural "Fuck yeah." Wow - this is one of the truest and sexiest movie scenes of the year.
I liked a lot of the performers in "Men, Women & Children": Sandler, who deserves credit for shutting down his youthful hyperactivity and creating a real and quietly mature screen presence; Tope and Crocicchia; Judy Greer as Hannah's mother Donna, herself a failed actress, who posts her daughter's modeling and head shots on a website and, when men e-mail asking for racier shots, adds an option for "private photo sessions"; Ansel Elgort, who follows his appealing turn in "The Fault in Our Stars" with a range-showing performance as Tim, the star quarterback who, after his mother abandons him and his father (Dean Norris) to move to California with another man, abruptly quits the football team to focus on a role-playing video game; Norris; Elena Kampouris, memorable as Allison, a malnourished girl who turns to a thin support group when tempted to eat real food in actual human portions; and Kaitlyn Dever, whom I singled out among a strong cast of young actors in last year's delightful "Short Term 12" and who does good work here as Tim's new girlfriend, Brandy, whose mother (Jennifer Garner) tracks her comings and goings electronically and screens her texts, Instagrams and Facebook wall. (For Garner, this is as thankless a part as imaginable, a grotesque caricature of overprotectiveness and inhumanity.)
A mostly excellent cast deserves better than the falsity and preachiness of "Men, Women & Children."