All words: Rachel Kurzius
Imagine you’re blindfolded, throwing darts at a wall. When you uncover your eyes, you see that the wall is filled with the assorted perils of the internet. Look, the blue-tipped dart lands on the mother lode of web hazards: pornography. Darts land on online dating, pro-anorexic support groups, and video games. You even throw one dart on the general malaise of swiping your screen ad infinitum. I’m pretty sure this is the brainstorming process director Jason Reitman used to develop Men, Women and Children.
The movie features an ensemble cast of interconnected characters, like the Crash of cyber relations. Reitman and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson adapted the novel of the same name by Chad Kultgen. Before we get to all of the people on Earth, Men, Women and Children shows us the Voyager 1 space probe hurtling through the Solar System. Voyager took the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo of our planet, which shows Earth is a small speck of distant light. The things we build just demonstrate how puny we are in this great cosmic dust-up.
From the Pale Blue Dot we go to father Don Truby (Adam Sandler) trying to masturbate on his teen son’s (Travis Tope) computer. Starting with porn is a way to say, “Hey, fasten your seatbelts, we’re gonna get into the real deal here.” Sandler nails the part of the pathetic schlub desperate to rub one out, but there’s nothing new here. Emma Thompson provides voiceover that sounds like Siri, mining humor from having her say things like “titty-fucking cum queen” in her measured tone. Thompson’s voice, so prominent in early scenes, disappears entirely.
And that’s the tone throughout Men, Women and Children: scolding that delves into low-hanging humor whenever possible. Reitman hinted about his technology anxiety in the much-lauded Up in the Air, when video conferencing plays the primary villain. But in this movie, Reitman has bought into all of the thoughtless thinkpieces that ask whether Facebook is making us lonely or sexting is making us slutty. “Yes!” Reitman says over and over again. “A thousand times yes!”
Here’s the problem: it’s not really clear that technology is to blame for any of the ills that the movie presents. For instance, Don and his wife Helen (Rosemary DeWitt) have settled into a marriage of comfort and convenience. They haven’t had sex in months. As Don delves into the world of online call girls, Helen explores adultery matchmaking site Ashley Madison. Even though Don and Helen use the web to cheat on each other, you can’t really blame their infidelity on the internet. It seems more like your garden variety loss of mojo.
Or take the Clint family. Mother Donna (Judy Greer) has set up a website for her wannabe-famous high school daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah’s fans can buy provocative pictures of her, because Donna buys her daughter lacy lingerie and snaps away. It’s super creepy that Donna sexualizes her own 16-year-old for profit and to deal with her own dreams of Hollywood. But stage moms aren’t a scourge of technology, even if the internet provides a new outlet for them to push their kids on the rest of us.
The biggest misstep in Men, Women and Children is the character of Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner). She is the internet Gestapo, a control freak who reads and deletes her teen daughter’s (Kaitlyn Dever) online communications. She is ridiculous, enraging, and entirely without nuance. In Juno, Reitman used Garner’s goody-two shoes energy to great effect, when a third-act shift makes us empathize with her in a new way. In this movie, Patricia just remains unbearable, in a way that tells us nothing about technology other than, “Stop being so insane, Patricia.”
The characters in Men, Women and Children may feel conflicted about their actions, but the audience doesn’t. This is a shame, because Reitman’s exploration of morality as a slippery eel in movies like Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air resulted in memorable characters. Maybe he’s just juggling too many characters here, but in the increase in quantity has definitely affected the quality of the people populating this town. If this is to be believed, only white people use the internet (with the exception of Dennis Haysbert as an Ashley Madison fling).
Men, Women and Children excels at visually representing the internet on screen. Texts and websites appear as little boxes over people’s heads. In one striking scene, high schoolers walk through the hallway as they interact with their smart phones. The screens atop their heads show that they’re navigating two worlds simultaneously. In another, Helen plays Words with Friends in bed, and the letter blocks pop up and rearrange. It’s a subtly comic way of pointing out how silly it is to pay attention to that game instead of the person in bed next to her.
This visual flair, unfortunately, gets overrun by characters more machine-like than the technology they use. Plus, a number of plot twists at the end require the audience to suspend reason altogether. If you’re reading this review, that means you’re currently on the internet. Jason Reitman worries that the web could result in an ectopic pregnancy. I say, keep using those screens, but swipe left on this flick.