In 2010, a South Korean couple was arrested for starving their three-month-old daughter to death, neglecting her as they hit internet cafés to play an online game. It’s a story referenced in “Men, Women & Children” by Jennifer Garner‘s hypervigilant, tech-wary mom to other parents in the neighborhood, as a warning about the dangers of online gaming. However, the characters around her chuckle to themselves about this extreme example, knowing it’s the kind of tale that’s easily exploited by those looking to create or justify their own fears about the big, bad internet. But curiously, Jason Reitman‘s film becomes the very thing it initially mocks, a “Dateline“-esque ensemble piece about the dark consequences of logging on, that tries and fails to send an overarching message about human connectivity and looking beyond your screens to the universe around you.
And that’s not just a metaphor—Reitman is unabashedly after big Ideas, with the film’s mostly unnecessary narration by Emma Thompson framing the story as the Voyager 2 reaches the very edge of our universe (this movie is “Very Serious”), bringing a record of life on Earth to the stars and maybe even other civilizations. Meanwhile, back on our planet, we’re all just tweeting, texting and updating our Facebook status. In case it isn’t already obvious, Reitman, who co-wrote the script with Erin Cressida Wilson (“Chloe,” “Fur,” “Secretary“) wants to make it clear that there is so much to discover and appreciate about our existence, you just have to log off and look at the stars or at the person in front of you. Oh, and in case you still don’t get it, the film quotes directly from Carl Sagan‘s “Pale Blue Dot“: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Pretty deep, right?
So, what are Reitman’s characters doing on this pale blue dot? Living some pretty miserable lives. Don and Rachel Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt) are stuck in a passionless marriage, and haven’t had sex in two months. Don has taken to watching so much porn that malware now clutters and freezes his own desktop, so he has to sneak into his son’s room and use his computer to jerk off. He also becomes curious about escorts, while Rachel begins to wonder about seeking out an affair via Ashley Madison. Like his father, the teenage Chris (Travis Tope) is also a porn enthusiast, but has watched so much XXX action that he longer knows how to get an erection on his own. And that may hinder his chances with cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), who has her own modeling website, run with the assistance of her mother Joan (Judy Greer), which she hopes will help her become rich and famous. There’s even more.
Allison (Elena Kampouris), another cheerleader, has become obsessed with her figure to the point that she’s largely stopped eating, and has turned to the troubling website Pretty Bitches Never Eat for “support.” And then there’s star football player Tim (Ansel Elgort) who has quit the team and become lost in the MMORPG game “Guild Wars,” which also becomes a conduit for dealing with his feelings following his mom’s sudden move to California to live with a new man. But there is a silver lining in his life in the form of Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose every move is being watched by the permanently anxious, one-woman NSA that is her mother Patricia (Garner), who spends almost every waking moment tracking her daughter in every way imaginable, down to the keystrokes she enters on her computer. Geez, where’s a funny cat compilation on YouTube when you need one? (Okay, here you go.)
At least at first, “Men, Women & Children” does provide an interesting perspective on how communication and our public image, in a broad sense, has massively changed in the last decade. Joan, once an aspiring actress herself, marvels at how fame and fortune are no more than a reality show away, far from her days of slogging from audition to audition. Helping their son with a class project about 9/11 (which is not as painful as that sounds), Don and Rachel share that the event happened in the days before widespread texting, and that they actually paused for a moment before telling Chris about what was happening—the kind of consideration that doesn’t really happen in today’s era of instant notifications. Reitman accurately captures teens’ obsession with their phones and their ability to carry on multiple conversations—in person and on their mobiles—simultaneously. But the film’s best moments occur when the story moves away from the pixels to the people.
Perhaps the strongest scenes occur when the characters interact with each other instead of via mouse clicks, which is kind of the point. The tender romance that blooms between Tim and Brandy is worthy of its own movie, with Elgort and Dever sharing some natural, very real chemistry. Same goes for the fledgling relationship that develops between Joan and Tim’s father Kent (Dean Norris), who meet at one of Patricia’s internet awareness meetings (which are rightfully treated as ridiculous). Both relationships are complex and complicated, but as soon as “Men, Women & Children” gets back to the digital world that nuance disappears.
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. When the film actually flirts with an unconventional idea, it lacks the courage to follow it up. For example, shortly after both Don and Rachel embark on affairs, we see a scene of the married couple smiling, and enjoying breakfast together with the kind of love they clearly haven’t had for each other in ages. A braver movie would consider the potential positives of both restoking their fires outside of the home in order to save their marriage. But Reitman never gives it a second thought and goes for a more traditional resolution which you can probably guess faster than I can type “windows on the desktop accidentally left open.”
It’s the last third of the movie where everything truly unravels in spectacularly uninspired fashion, with “Men, Women & Children” suddenly turning into several after school specials rolled into one, with one grave consequence after another. At one point, at least four different characters wind up in tears, but don’t be surprised if your eyes are still dry. Crassly manipulative and shamelessly predictable, Reitman doesn’t give his characters or the audience the intelligence they deserve to earn that emotion. “Men, Women & Children” is a crude movie about the digital age in 2014 that feels like it was made in 1995. (Perhaps a rewatch of “The Net” is in order, at least for this scene).
It’s a shame Reitman goes down such a dull and tired road with his movie, because the cast give some really nice turns. Sandler is pitch perfect in his supporting role, playing frumpy and sexually frustrated with a realistic weariness. Again, Elgort and Dever are great together, and Greer and Norris conjure up something lovely in their scenes as well. Some nice props also need to go to Bibio for his score, which mixes electronic burblings and actual instrumentation to nice effect. But sadly, this is window dressing on a movie that has all the subtlety of a pop-up window. Don’t be surprised at how fast you move to click it closed. [C-]