With the advent of websites such as “metacritic” and “rottentomatoes,” film criticism could arguably appear as a quantitative science rather than evaluation of art. Potential film viewers can log onto a site, see a number that determines the quality of the film and then make their decisions accordingly. This system may prove convenient, but films are an art form, and reducing them to simply good or bad neglects a number of factors. The art of filmmaking is complicated and reducing their artistry to a simple number neglects a lot of the ambitious elements of a project. I want to profile two films that, according to Rottentomatoes are “rotten,” (links below) and explore what makes them worthwhile cinematic experiences. These two films are Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here and Jason Reitman’s Men, Women, and Children.
Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here is a coming of age story about a man in his mid 30’s struggling to come to terms with the responsibilities and realities of adulthood and family overpowering his dreams and desires. The film begins with beautiful shots of light pouring in through the trees as the protagonist, Aidan Bloom, narrates one of the only non diegetic pieces of dialogue in a film, the story of him and his brother who dreamed as children to one day become heroes, only to end up realizing that this desire may always be a dream. The shots continue as a fantasy sequence where Aidan and a robot follower run and battle crime. As they turn around, they see his son asking for the password to their iPad. This snaps him back into reality, at he breakfast table with his demanding children insistent that he put a dollar in the swear jar because of his cursing. This sequence of images provides details of a man whose mind and body are in completely different places. His wife must act as the adult figure within the household.
The story of the film involves a character named Aidan Bloom having to come to terms with the diagnosis of his father with a terminal illness and face the responsibilities of adulthood and raising his children. When his wife finally confronts Aidan about this, Braff’s film frames this conversation in the distance near an old carnival. The image is of two adults sitting near a beach in a spot one would expect of teenagers. These are two characters who have matured past their free younger years into a time where responsibilities for their must now dictate their lives. Aidan is a struggling actor necessitating his wife, Sarah, to work a miserable office job she hates because as she states, if she stops, their kids don’t eat. Sarah must finally ask him when their lives became all about him and his dreams As Aidan snaps into his realization, Braff moves his camera close, taking the characters out of the carnival. The realities of his life make living for dreams a threat to one’s family. Shortly after, Aidan receives a pamphlet instructing him on how to handle his father’s funeral. The disconnect between the fantasies of youth and the disillusionment of adulthood continues in a sequence when Aidan takes his children on a “field trip” to a beautiful spot in the California desert where he explains he had his most recent epiphany, the children look at him confused. The sound is full of wind and the sun disappears quickly in the scene. Braff through the non verbal filmic elements of light and sound brilliantly illustrates a character experiencing disillusionment. A single epiphany will not save his life anymore, it will take true work. Wish I Was Here is not a perfect film and it certainly has missteps such as characters far too often nod in a solemn fashion after Braff’s screenplay makes a character state a self-aware profundity. Despite these flaws, Braff’s film at its core is a beautiful and moving coming of age story about a man who must become a leader for his children.
Jason Reitman’s Men, Women, and Children tells the story of how human beings now interact with each other and face their problems in the era of modern communication technology and social media. At first glance, it may appear like a film that condemns social media and blames it for society’s ills, and could therefore illicit easy criticism as a film made by an out of touch Baby Boomer, but a careful viewing of the film will unearth a much more profound message. Social media and technology are tools that the characters use to try to solve their problems. It provides them with an illusion of an escape and an ultimately ineffective avoidance mechanism for their problems. Reitman shows this world with images such as an overhead shot of a high school hallway that features all the students on their phones, bumping into each other oblivious of there surroundings with an omniscient view of their online interactions, the worlds into which they have all escaped. Another scene features three cheerleaders talking while two of them send text messages back and forth gossiping about the third. One may look at these sequences and see a condemnation of texting, but that is too simplistic of a view. The overhead shot does not dwell on the phone, but on the gaps between characters. The students in the school have no connection with each other and instead of seeking it, they instead turn to their phones. The scene with the cheerleaders reflects teenage gossiping behavior, albeit in a way that reflects the times of the film. Another two characters in the film are in a failing marriage and both turn to online sources in order to fulfill their lives. One seeks an affair on an online cheating website, and the other seeks out an online escort. Reitman never frames these scenes as the internet being a cause; rather he has scenes of the characters unable to express themselves to each other. When the characters must finally talk to each other and admit their wrongdoing, they both mutually decide that they should ignore the problem and instead focus on what they each want on their respective omelets. Reitman uses a visual technique whereby when a character is immersed in their social media of choice, the world around them becomes that website or videogame. The characters in this film must plug in to a different reality to escape their own dissatisfaction. Men, Women, and Children like, Wish I Was Here does have some disappointing elements. The film has a frustrating voiceover narration that tries to poetically connect the space satellite voyager with the situations of the character. Reitman, unfortunately chooses to have a narrator explicitly state the connections during numerous points throughout the film. It is an example of a screenplay telling rather than showing, and is by far the weakest element of the film.
Neither Wish I Was Here nor Men, Women, and Children are perfect films, but they are ambitious and have the intention on making a statement on modern day American society. They have complex and well thought out characters and are careful to use filmic language to convey their themes. Yes, they have flaws in their storytelling. No film is perfect however, and both Braff and Reitman have made powerful dramas that do have a lot to say on the human condition.