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Straight To Hell Returns

Post-Repo Man cult favorite returns with improved special effects —John Adams (review...)

Alex Cox returns... Straight to Hell

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In Men, Women & Children, director Jason Reitman tries to latch onto something juicy and topical: the ways in which technology can push us apart rather than bring us closer together.

Although hardly an astonishing insight, this caution about technology works its way into nearly every corner of Reitman’s densely populated adaptation of a novel by Chad Kultgen.

Reitman knows how to work with young actors
Reitman knows how to work with young actors

Set in a Texas suburb, Men, Women & Children ups it creative ante by employing a large and talented cast, a bit of technological gimmickry (we read texts on the screen as characters type them) and a wry narration delivered by Emma Thompson, who’s never seen on screen.

Thompson’s narration offers an ironic reminder that the movie’s collection of narrow, ingrown stories — so feverishly important to most of its characters — take place against a background of vast cosmic indifference.

That’s an awfully grand reach for an essentially small movie that tends to focus on sexual relationships — or the lack of them — and which, one presumes, is intended as a snapshot of a contemporary reality.

Following on the heels of Reitman’s disappointing Labor Day, Men, Women & Children bounces from one story to another as if following links during an Internet browsing session.

The best of these stories involves a sexually dysfunctional family. Adam Sandler plays a husband who has substituted Internet porn and masturbation for a sex life with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt).

As the story unfolds, Sandler’s Don Truby seeks out (via the Internet, of course) a high-priced call girl. His wife, who very much wants to feel desired, uses an Internet site to arrange a sexual liaison with a stranger (Dennis Haysbert).

Meanwhile, the couple’s teen-age son (Travis Tope) spends so much time with Internet porn, he can’t respond sexually to the advances of a willing cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia).

Crocicchia’s Hannah has preoccupations of her own. Encouraged by a stage-managing mother (Judy Greer), Hannah’s the star of a web site created by her mom in hopes of establishing her daughter as a celebrity and an actress —probably in that order.

Hanna isn’t the movie’s only cheerleader. Allison (Elena Kampouris), also a cheerleader, visits pro-anorexia websites and engages in acts of self-sabotage, allowing herself to be used by a football player who doesn’t give a damn about her.

To say that the plot further thickens doesn’t quite do justice to Men, Women & Children’s complexity: Dean Norris (who played Hank on Breaking Bad) appears as a father who’s upset that his son (Ansel Elgort) has decided to quit playing football. The young man apparently has reached a point of familiar adolescent despair: He has concluded that life is meaningless.

Elgort’s Tim becomes involved with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), the daughter of an obsessively over-protective mother (Jennifer Garner), who charts her daughter’s every on-line move.

Amidst the story clutter, Reitman obtains some fine performances. A surprisingly effective Sandler channels his inner mope to play a guy of quiet dissatisfactions; DeWitt is fine as his frustrated wife; and watching Norris made me hope that he’ll find his way into more movies.

A word more on DeWitt: In a late-picture scene, her character faces her husband at a pivotal moment in their relationship. Watch DeWitt’s face. She manages one of the most emotionally shattered expressions I’ve seen in a movie.

Reitman, who also directed Juno, knows how to work with young actors, and the film’s many teen-agers acquit themselves well.

Men, Women & Children seems intended as a cautionary tale. I don’t think it has the sharpness and brio that has characterized Reitman’s best work (Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air), and not all of the movie’s accumulated moments are as telling as must have been intended.

The subject of technological tyranny in ordinary lives isn’t quite as compelling as the filmmakers may think, and Reitman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) sometimes skim reads the movie’s characters and situations.

Fair to say, I think, that Men, Women & Children doesn’t always see deeply, but credit Reitman for trying to touch the sadness that seems to have descended on so many lives.