Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Men, Women & Children"

 1.5 / 5 

"In this dirty-minded world," fictional feminist Jenny Fields famously observed, "you are either someone's wife or someone's whore."  The two aren't necessarily exclusive in director Jason Reitman's wild-eyed anti-Internet screed Men, Women & Children.

The film starts in outer space, referencing Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" essay as Emma Thompson's unseen narrator explains how small and meaningless human existence really is.  Men, Women & Children starts with the really big question: Why are we here?  Then, for two hours, it offers one possible answer: because loose, sex-crazed women are a danger for all right-thinking, emotionally centered men in the world.

What's that, you say?  The answer isn't related to the question?  The filmmakers don't seem to mind that little problem.

In Men, Women & Children, one woman takes quasi-pornographic pictures of her daughter and sells them online.  A 15-year-old girl will do anything to lose her virginity to the high school's bad boy, and pays the price with the blood of her unborn child.  A prudish mother obsesses over every keystroke her daughter makes on the computer, fetishizing her concern and spending her time constructing a digital chastity belt, while desperately imploring, "You have no idea how dangerous that is," waving hysterically toward the computer.  Another woman has grown distant from her husband and realizes she can only come alive when she meets up with a stranger in a hotel and loudly exclaims how badly she needs his penis inside of her.

The men, meanwhile, may be clueless but mostly because they're trying to figure out these crazy women, who tease them and play with their emotions and cause all sorts of sexual dysfunction.  The men aren't to blame for the apathy and disconnection that is sweeping the earth, according to the movie -- they are just the victims of the women who can't keep their panties on.

Men, Women & Children might be the most staggeringly misogynistic movie yet made in the 21st century -- and I'm writing that just hours after having seen Gone Girl.

Astonishingly, a woman co-wrote the screenplay with director Jason Reitman; a woman was at least partially responsible for a movie in which 15-year-old nympomaniacs are seducing 15-year-old boys, who are so sexually frustrated by spending hours with Internet porn that they have to practice having sex with Nerf footballs.

Yes, there is a scene in Men, Women & Children in which a 15-year-old boy tries having sex with a Nerf football, and no it is not played for laughs -- even though, unintentionally, it gets them.  I laughed a lot in Men, Women & Children, but I don't think the film was intended, at any level, as a comedy.

There's another scene in which Adam Sandler, in full sad-sack schlump mode, hires an $800-an-hour prostitute, then expresses disbelief when he learns his wife is having an affair.  Of course a man may need to turn to a hooker to meet his sexual desires, the movie seems to indicate, but only because his wife isn't able to satisfy him anymore.

Ostensibly, Men, Women & Children wants to explore how we've become so addicted to social media and the Internet that we can't relate to each other anymore.  There are scenes that are live-action equivalents of those shots in Pixar's Wall-E where all the people are floating around staring at screens, unaware of the world around them.  In Men, Women & Children, that vision isn't a futuristic one, it's an observation of what's happening today.

In that, Reitman has a fair point and a valid subject for a movie, but between the pseudo-intellectual references to "Pale Blue Dot" and a prurient fascination with the sexual lives of 15-year-old kids, Men, Women & Children spectacularly loses its focus and turns into a screeching, overwrought insistence that the world is falling apart at the seams.

Weaving together a half-dozen intersecting stories, Men, Women & Children has aspirations to be a Grand Statement like Paul Thomas Anderson's ambitious Magnolia or Paul Haggis's astonishingly overrated Crash, but can't come close to managing it.

In Up in the Air, Reitman memorably and sweetly captured the widespread anxiety and concerns of the moment.  He wants to do the same thing again here, but instead of seeming wise and prescient, Men, Women & Children manages only to be breathlessly, sometimes hysterically, paranoid.

The large and impressive cast, including Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, J.K. Simmons and Dennis Haysbert really do their best -- but did they read the script?  One key plot point has a character attempting suicide over a video game, while another key moment comes when a mother tries to justify her own kiddie-porn pictures of her daughter.

If only those harlots would stop leading such virile, virtuous men astray.

Viewed Oct. 5, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


"Gone Girl"

 3.5 / 5 

If you've read Gone Girl the novel, you've already seen a lot of Gone Girl the movie.  The images David Fincher assembles in his film version often look exactly like the images you probably had in your head when you read the book.  It's uncanny sometimes, the way Fincher has made a dark and brooding movie (because he's Fincher) that is filled with moments of cinematic déjà vu.

Gillian Flynn's novel was a terrific mystery that -- not surprisingly, given Flynn's background as an entertainment writer -- often read like a screenplay treatment, and in fact she ultimately wrote the screenplay for the film, smartly tightening the story, bringing more of its misanthropic view of humanity into sharper focus.

That's a quality Fincher amplifies in the movie: There are no good guys.  Gone Girl takes a breathtakingly dim view of the world, a view amplified by the sheen and polish in which they live.  Their contempt for each other in spite of their privilege left me feeling ready for a nice long shower, the way I felt after seeing Barbet Schroeder's disturbing Reversal of Fortune

In Gone Girl, the upper-class pretension is replaced by a post-recession credit-card driven, suburban McMansion malaise.  Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), haven't been having a good time of things, especially since moving from Manhattan to the Missouri sticks, a fate Gone Girl regards as a sort of death sentence; there couldn't possibly anything good out in the middle of nowhere?

Just as their marriage is rockiest, Nick comes home to find his wife missing.  It looks like there has been a struggle.  The lead detective seems sympathetic enough, but she begins to suspect there might be more going on than Nick is revealing, and soon enough Nick's twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) is learning some mighty suspicious stuff.

It's when the detective (Kim Dickens) finds an envelope helpfully marked "Clue One" that everything begins to unravel.

About midway through Gone Girl, there's a plot twist that shocked most readers of the book and that Fincher manages, despite this familiarity, to make mildly surprising, even for audiences already familiar with the story.  Obviously, I can't say what it is, and its prominence makes it impossible to describe any more of the film's story, since it launches the second half of this long (150-minute) movie.

Every frame of Gone Girl is executed with style and assurance.  As a friend said when the movie ended, "There's not a single thing I'd complain about."  And that may be both the highest praise and the most troubling aspect of the movie, because for all of its cool composure, there's something vital missing, an urgency and sense of malicious fun.

There's nothing wrong with Gone Girl, but it lacks the gallows humor of Reversal of Fortune, the supreme messiness of Fatal Attraction and the danger of Double Indemnity.  There are moments when it comes close to being an incisive commentary on the fascination with media coverage of crime -- for a time, it seems maybe Nick likes all the attention he's getting.

But Gone Girl doesn't play with those ideas; it focuses on presenting its story cleanly, efficiently, with just enough slight tweaks to the source material to keep fans of the novel surprised and guessing.  Affleck is eager and sympathetic -- maybe too much so; there aren't many moments where Nick becomes distasteful.  Pike takes her cool detachment to an extreme; it would be impossible, based on the cinematic evidence, to know what makes Amy do the things she does in the movie.  The best characters are the supporting ones, like Dickens' determined detective and Tyler Perry's smooth lawyer.

Maybe Gone Girl would simply have been too bleak if Affleck and Pike brought real passion to the roles; the misanthropic underpinnings -- no one is good in this movie -- would have been overwhelming.  As it is, Gone Girl is calculated not to enrage but to entertain, and that's something it does very, very well.

Viewed Oct. 5, 2014 -- ArcLight Hollywood