Filled with superimposed graphics to represent characters who turn to texting, tweeting and Facebook instead of engaging with their real-life problems, Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women and Children” puts a lot of effort into making a grand statement about our dangerously fragmented times. Unfortunately, the movie falls short of its big ideas.
Based on Chad Kultgen’s 2011 novel, “Men, Women & Children” finds Reitman directing his first larger ensemble drama since his snazzy debut, “Thank You For Smoking.” Whereas that movie featured plenty of political grandstanding in the context of its bubbly dialogue, “Men, Women and Children” lacks such eloquence. An “American Beauty”-type portrait of suburban families dealing with various domestic frustrations, “Men, Women & Children” drifts between several parents and children, exploring various interlocking stories of characters whose online habits cause innumerable problems — and bring existing ones to the surface.
The screenplay, co-written by Reitman and Erina Cressida Wilson, offers some perceptive observations about the degree of confusion created by the various new media. But it keeps pushing that message past its breaking point, most gratuitously in a recurring CGI sequence featuring the Voyager I spacecraft and its famed “pale blue dot” photograph from the furthest reaches of the solar system. Because, you know, all these problems are meaningless. “Men, Women & Children” conveys that idea in its opening minutes, and continually returns to it throughout the two-hour running time.
The movie’s large cast is filled with talent struggling to give credence to the film’s didactic approach. There’s the porn-addicted Don (a portly, bearded Adam Sandler, so low key he’s barely present), whose habit eventually devolves into a desire for escort services — at the exact time that his wife Rachel (a solid Rosemarie DeWitt) decides to try out the adultery website Ashley Madison. Their teen son Jake (Travis Tope, wonderfully restrained but underutilized) struggles with own porn addiction, and frets over the advances being made by the flirtatious cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), who’s worried that she can’t match the outsized fantasies he’s discovered online.
Hannah’s failed actress mother (Judy Greer, committed but miscast) attempts to help her daughter develop a show business career by maintaining an ethically dubious site filled with seductive photos. She falls for the sweet-natured Kent Mooney (the excellent Dean Norris, who’s at least finding bigger projects after “Breaking Bad”), whose son Tim (Ansel Elgort, believably melancholic) rejects pressure from all around him to join the football team.
Tim’s attraction to the arty introvert Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose domineering mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) tracks her digital footprint every step of the way, forms the one truly compelling ingredient in Reitman’s excessive layering of plots. Stern in her commitment to spreading the gospel on the ills of social media, Patricia works tirelessly to inform community parents about the potential evils assailing their children. (She even offers one of them “a pamphlet on the dangers of selfies.”)
Closer in tone to “Juno,” which also contrasts nerve-wracked adults and far-savvier teens, this drama comes the closest to capturing the frantic, alienated lives of teenagers in a time when connectivity only further complicates their anxieties. Garner’s paranoid approach to responsible parenting registers as overstatement, but the actress imbues the character with enough nervous energy to make her daughter’s conundrum resonate.
Nevertheless, whenever Brandy and Tim’s scenes together develop a modicum of intrigue, Reitman shifts to another strand of his story. Ultimately more concerned with the big picture than any of its details, he populates the movie with countless reminders of the themes in play. The Voyager footage is the least of its shortcomings; in one mall scene, bubbles swirl about over the heads of numerous people as they glance at their smartphones, bluntly illustrating their virtual addictions.
However, the most egregious device is a recurring voiceover inexplicably provided by Emma Thompson, who never appears onscreen, explaining several characters’ thoughts at opportune moments. (When an escort compliments Don on his junk, Thompson intones, “Don knew he had an average-sized penis.”) Perhaps this is meant to further the sense of dislocation created by today’s plugged-in culture. Instead, it enforces a dull framework on the entire narrative, which never allows the material to stand on its own ground.
It’s no surprise that the movie pushes an agenda. Reitman’s features often harbor sneakily conservative attitudes beneath their vulgar exteriors, from the pro-life leanings of “Juno” to the sympathy for the upper classes in “Up in the Air,” which resurface in “Men, Women & Children.” The movie portrays a society frightened by progress, but even as it pretends to abhor that notion, it winds up harboring the same delusions as its characters with an exaggerated pileup of circumstances. Rather than embracing change, it suggests the best solution is to recede from it and thrive on comfort. Even the existential message plays like an excuse to stop thinking so hard. “Men, Women and Children” is so married to the idea of humanity’s insignificance that it presents support for that argument with its very existence.
“Men, Women & Children” opens in limited release today and in theaters nationwide October 17. A version of this review ran during the Toronto International Film Festival.