Director Jason Reitman follows the story of a group of high school teenagers and their parents and examines their relationships in the age of the internet. It also evokes the role played by internet in social issues such video game culture, anorexia, infidelity, fame seeking, and illicit online material.
The problem with Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children is that, as its title suggests, it’s trying to do too much. Ambitiously trying to depict ‘the way we live now’ – addicted to our mobile phones and sucking compulsively on the poisoned nipple of the Internet – the film fails to work as an engaging drama or entertaining satire. Every character exists merely to illustrate one of the problems of the online age: Pornography, Voyeurism, Anorexia, Bullying, Adultery and Role-play Gaming. The list of dangers keeps multiplying, along with the thinly sketched but interconnecting stories of small town Texan high school students and their dissatisfied parents.
The film begins in space as the unmanned Voyager probe floats peacefully past Saturn’s golden rings. The probe carries copper records of humanity’s finest music, literature and speeches, in case an alien race should discover it. We’re told this by Emma Thompson in a plummy British narration that brings to mind a no-nonsense nanny. This voiceover continues as we cut to a scene of Don Truby (Adam Sandler) preparing to masturbate in front of his son’s computer (because his own is infected by malware). “His brain was an inferior substitute to porn,” Thompson tartly (and superfluously) tells us.
It seems this problem is shared with Don’s teenage son (Travis Tope), who’s addicted to domination porn and can’t get it up for the cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) who tries to seduce him. She’s got her own slightly blue website, managed by her mother (Judy Greer), where fans can pay to see the teenager semi-clothed.
Meanwhile, Don and his bored wife (Rosemary De Witt in a sweet, understated performance that deserves a film of its own) are both, unbeknownst to each other, looking for romance online: he’s booking call girls, while she’s using the adulterous dating site Ashley Maddison to hook up with fellow lonely marrieds, including the gravel-voiced ‘Secretluvur’ (Dennis Haysbert).
Back at school, anorexic Allison (Elena Kampouris) is starving herself and using “thinspirational” websites to aid her quest to achieve ultimate hotness. Over in the library, a quiet boy (Ansel Elgort) is being bullied by text messages because he quit the football team. He’s been watching Karl Sagan’s famous ‘Thin Blue Dot’ speech online, and can’t see the point of sport anymore. Also, he wants to spend more time in his virtual reality gaming world, Guild Wars. His mother has left him and his father for another man, and he painfully traces their romance on Facebook. The only bright spot in his life is his blossoming friendship with bookish fellow student Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever). She reads a lot, mainly because her ever-vigilant mother (Jennifer Garner, in the most thankless and one-dimensional role in the film) monitors her every online interaction. The film does well to depict the sense of violation children feel when their parents fail to understand the importance of their online identities, but Garner’s villainous character functions mainly as a bogeyman, there to cover off the other side of the story: that teenagers are humans with rights to privacy too!
There are some funny and poignant scenes: the interaction between three teenage girls chatting supportively in the gym, while two of them bitch by text throughout the conversation; a scene in a mall with a crowd of people all deeply absorbed in their mobile screens, rectangular chat bubbles displaying their interactions; a sexting exchange between two teens whose raunchy words seem to baffle and disgust them as they escalate. Nobody’s talking or looking at each other, but everybody’s desperate for connection. We all want love. We all want sex. We all want validation. But it’s all so obvious, and you get the feeling that like most films dealing explicitly with technology, this one is going to look dated the moment it hits cinemas. (As a counterpoint, see Spike Jonze’s tender and inventive Her, a futuristic fable that was able to say so much about our own technology-assisted romances.)
Director Jason Reitman has made some sharp and original films (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult), but this one – co-written with Erin Cressida Wilson and adapted from a novel by Chad Kultgen’s – seems devoid of wit. It’s strangely old-fashioned with an hysterical edge. (Some reviewers have even likened it to Reefer Madness, the infamous anti-Marijuana propaganda reel.) There’s no doubting that something huge and momentous has happened to the way we communicate and interact through technology, and we’re probably right to be worried about our kids and what they get up to online. But Men, Women & Children isn’t up to the task of exploring that in a smart, surprising or even particularly well-observed way.