Two ensemble comedy dramas at either ends of the budgetary scale: Jason Reitman’s synthetic Men Women & Children and Simon Baker’s likeable, low-budget Night Bus.
It’s a toss-up as to what’s cruder in Men, Women & Children: the “ribald” humour of the film’s first half or the icky melodramatics and moralising of its second. Jason Reitman’s latest dud moves from cheap smut to even cheaper sentiment, its trajectory recalling that of last year’s Don Jon directed by (and starring) Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The movie’s subject matter recalls that of Don Jon too, for Men Women & Children is another attempt to explore the effects of the Internet on interpersonal relationships. I say an “attempt”, because the movie sadly fails as comedy, drama or truly insightful exploration of the digitisation of communication.
Adapted by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson from Chad Kultgen’s novel, Men, Women and Children plays mostly as a (very) poor man’s Magnolia, interweaving the experiences of various interconnected characters in a suburb of Austin, Texas, and even coming complete with some heavy-handed efforts at cosmic philosophising. (The third-person narration, which Reitman considers to be “naughty in a highly intelligent way”, is used in a jarring, insecure fashion throughout, and is delivered in exceedingly plummy tones by Emma Thompson, with much of the comedy, so-called, coming from her delivery of words like “masturbating” or, um, “tittyfuckingcumqueen”.)
Reitman tries to bring some visual life to the proceedings by having the characters' various Facebook posts or text messages flash up across the screen. But his lack of assurance with the material continually shows through in the contrived, rather shameless conflicts and crises that the movie cooks up: a miscarriage here, a suicide attempt there.
The characters run a predictable gamut: the porn-addicted and video game-addled; a mother making up for her lost dreams of stardom by essentially pimping her (all-too-willing) teenage daughter across the Internet; another mother fanatically controlling her daughter’s online life; a bored married couple separately investigating the worlds of online dating and escort services and so on.
There’s some horribly convenient symmetrical plotting (the fakery of which is only exacerbated by clunky editing), and some effective performances flit through: Adam Sandler as a sex-starved sadsack; Jennifer Garner as a pinched priss; Ansel Elgort as a gaming obsessive (though pity poor Dennis Haysbert, drafted into the movie as the only significant Black character and then given a bizarre kind of sub-Shaft-ese to speak). However, the actors' best efforts flounder due to the film’s overall fraudulence. Promising elements get thrown away and particularly sloppy is the structuring of the second half, in which a series of revelation scenes – each urging inadequate parents to see the error of their either overly controlling or overly liberal ways –become stupefying in their repetitiveness.
Night Bus (2014)
An altogether more honest and characterful piece of filmmaking is Simon Baker’s Night Bus, an engaging low-budget Brit flick that unfolds entirely on a Leytonstone-bound N39 as it makes its way through the city over one night. You might think of the movie as a small-scale city symphony film, or, alternatively as the classic night-ride-home scene in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (199) stretched across a whole feature.
Picking up and dropping narrative strands like so many transient passengers, the movie takes in a necessarily broad character range: we see quarrelling or loved-up couples, bantering office workers, amiably pissed Poles, and the harried driver, too. There are some lovely, weird juxtapositions throughout and a few laugh-out-loud moments, not least a passenger’s surprising use of the open bus doors as a makeshift urinal.
Much as he employs the bus setting as a stage for mini-dramas, Baker is scrupulous in not over-dramatising or in constructing contrived Big Events. There’s only one real error, and it comes late: a silly shift into a character’s thoughts via a voiceover that editorialises baldly on what we’ve just been seeing. But that mis-step aside, Baker has created a lively, likeable London snapshot here.