Your assignment: Make a movie that captures the zeitgeist of 2014. Up to the task? No filmmaker was—or has been, for at least the past 10 years — until now. Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” didn’t sign up for the zeitgeist challenge, but it’s being pegged by critics left and right as an “Internet-era ‘Crash'” that’s undertaken the responsibility of speaking for — and to — the cyber-mores of today. As such, the film is being met with unrelenting, derisive criticism. Why is “Men, Women & Children,” a movie about interpersonal relationships with the Internet as a common theme, so deeply offensive?
The zeitgeist problem
Where there’s a considerable discrepancy between intention and execution, there are bad reviews. Everyone loves to hate something that didn’t achieve what it set out to accomplish. In this case, the critical community has imposed its own set of intentions on “Men, Women & Children”: Jason Reitman never set out to make an Internet zeitgeist film, but he’s been charged with failing to deliver on that promise.
One of the major expectations of a zeitgeist film is that it answer questions about contemporary society. In doing so, it is supposed to unearth truths about our collective psyche. Critics have been first and foremost hung up on the idea that Reitman’s film fails to contribute anything new to the discourse on our relationship with technology:
“Because, you know: the Internet! You’ve heard of it, right? This movie definitely has, and Reitman and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson (adapting Chad Kultgen’s novel) are here to tell you what it’s really like. Did you know that people use the Internet to cheat on their spouses, arrange dates with hookers, try out alternate identities or play role-playing games with ‘friends’ they don’t actually know for hours at a time? Stay tuned; the revelations keep on coming.” Salon
“The way we remember it, kids of an earlier era hid salacious stuff from their folks, if only under the mattress (the first place a parent would look). They tortured themselves with diet regimens and sought pleasure in video games, board games or Strip Hearts. Spouses found ways to stray. The world was awash in sexuality, always has been, yet somehow most of us survived.” TIME
“Bored spouses have been cheating on each other for centuries, and while the Internet may have made it slightly easier to find a willing partner, it hasn’t altered the basics.” A.V. Club
“Online gaming! Anorexia! Secret Tumblr accounts! Porn! Escorts! Saucy teenage photos that might be inappropriate! Reveals via Facebook posts! It’s actually kind of amazing “Men, Women & Children” never addresses sexting as it seems to want to check off every other box in the Internet Panic column, and sadly, Reitman has absolutely nothing new to say here.” The Playlist
Beyond its crimes of stating the obvious, critics have also seemed to misinterpret Reitman’s stance on technology as a harbinger of doom. They’ve written that the movie is a “scaremonger,” and that “the Internet is the cause for most of the characters’ problems.” Yet nowhere in the film does Reitman blame the Internet for his characters’ actions. In fact, in nearly all interviews about the film, Reitman states, “I don’t think the Internet is a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just a thing.” That critics seem intent on reading the film as “a series of cautionary tales” or “a diagnosis of a problem which feels preachy and late to the party” is indicative of our personal biases.
We may be pigeonholing “Men, Women & Children” into the Internet zeitgeist category simply because it’s one of the only movies that’s ever dared to go there. Without a frame of reference, we can only have inflated expectations. There were no shortage of films analyzing the Vietnam War, for example, so “Apocalypse Now” didn’t carry the burden of encompassing the entire spectrum of American sentiment. But you’d be hard-pressed to name two narrative features made about the Internet. “Her” doesn’t count; it’s of the near-future fantasy variety. “Catfish” is a documentary. “The Social Network” is a story about the inception of a business: Facebook. That leaves us with, what? “You’ve Got Mail,” a rom-com about email from 1998? Perhaps we wouldn’t project such lofty expectations onto this film if there were other movies to compare it to.
No wonder critics found “Men, Women & Children” disappointing. It’s not perfectly crafted. It doesn’t answer to our deepest concerns about technology at large. It doesn’t show us what’s wrong with always being plugged in, or what the alternatives should be; it doesn’t offer any revelations. It does, in fact, state the obvious. But that’s because the film isn’t really about the Internet itself. It’s about the Internet as a vehicle for human behavior. At a panel at the New York Institute of Technology last week, Reitman said: “In this movie, the Internet is a location. This is a movie about intimacy; it’s a movie about connection. You really can’t do a movie about that in 2014 without showing half the world sitting around looking at their phones. And the funniest thing about the Internet is, it is a location. When you look at people — when you’re at a restaurant, an airport, a school, wherever you are— you realize they’re not in a restaurant, they’re not in a school, they’re not in an airport. They’re in Facebook. They’re in Twitter. That’s actually physically where they are at that given point.” We’re so blinkered by what we want “Men, Women & Children” to be that we fail to see it for what it actually is: a movie that says nothing new precisely because it’s a time capsule. If the movie feels familiar and sometimes trite, it’s because the things that these characters do are the things that people do in 2014. Reitman is simply reflecting them back at us. It doesn’t always succeed on an artistic level, but it’s a mirror nonetheless.
On the Internet defensive
Wherever you stand on “Men, Women & Children,” it’s undeniable that Jason Reitman has struck a nerve. In an interview with Indiewire, Reitman said: “For the people who think that I’m somehow trying to make a comment on the Internet: One, they’re wrong. I just have no interest in commenting on the Internet and I don’t think that’s what the movie does. Two, that seems to bother them.” Reitman’s rebuttal of the intentions imposed upon his film is important, but what’s even more important is that he is cognizant of the bigger issue at hand. The fact that the film’s negative critical reception is largely disproportionate to its actual flaws suggests a pervasive bad faith towards our relationship with technology. A film like this is threatening to the status quo exactly because it’s telling us what we already know, and the fact that this bothers us is the real cause for concern. Perhaps we’re not ready to use film to introspect about technology, and any movie that breached the topic was doomed to fail in the public eye. “Are we ready to tackle this?” Reitman said at the panel. “I don’t think we’ll have perspective on this for decades.”
Reacting to the widespread disdain for the film, Owen Glieberman, writing for BBC, says: “It’s as if media people feel they have to defend technology at all costs – or, at the very least, at the cost of their livelihoods. It doesn’t look hip to criticize Internet culture. But that’s what makes Reitman a bold mainstream director: he’s committed to telling the truth as he sees it.” Even if Reitman’s truth doesn’t resonate with you, he has at least successfully broken the ice. “Men, Women & Children” is not a great movie, but it’s an important one, and it’s a shame to relegate it to recycled conversation.
Last week, when I began expressing some of these opinions to a friend in the industry, he stopped me midway and asked, flabbergasted, “Are you saying you actually liked the movie?” Though the conversation was taking place over the Internet, the shift was palpable: it was as if I had voluntarily donned a dunce cap by expressing anything but contempt for the film. Shortly thereafter, I learned that this person, with his strong convictions and patronizing tone, hadn’t actually seen the movie — he’d only read the reviews.