It’s easy to see Jason Reitman’s ambition for Men, Women & Children to be a big statement about How We Live Now. The film is a Very Serious ensemble drama about a cross-section of characters living intertwined melodramas a la Crash or Babel. In this case they’re a bunch of high schoolers and their parents in suburban Texas – though really a vague Modern Anytown, USA – who live disconnected from their feelings and each other. We see lives of quiet desperation mediated by screens showing digital spaces that alternately soothe and exacerbate their problems. Fair enough, but despite fitfully operating as effective drama, it’s clearly a movie built thesis statement backwards into character and incident, frozen by its own sense of importance. Worse, there’s not much to its thesis, which is as muddled as it is trite, developing its emptiness with a heavy hand.
I suppose muddled moralizing speaks, even accidentally, to our societal ambivalence towards technology. It’d be an interesting idea around which to build a drama, but Reitman, adapting with Erin Cressida Wilson a novel by Chad Kultgen, creates a series of events that reflect bland reprimand, concerned handwringing, or vacuous same-as-it-ever-was resignation, sometimes all at once. Caught halfway between scolding and shrugging, it has a view of the Internet that feels so outdated and incomplete I almost expected to hear a modem dial up on the soundtrack. Plot threads involve infidelities, romances, repression, self-harm, painful yearning, and a variety of questionable decisions. Each is filtered through and aided by the Internet. That’s what gives it a patina of timeliness around which it spins rather empty, cliché stories saved only fitfully by strong acting across the board.
The best plotline, perhaps because it draws best on the small character work Reitman did well in better movies like Juno and Young Adult, involves two high school kids dealing with emotional issues. She (Kaitlyn Dever, of Short Term 12 and ABC’s Last Man Standing) is a loner, bookish, sweet, and under the surveillance of a technophobe mother (Jennifer Garner). He (Ansel Elgort, of The Fault in Our Stars) is a football player who quit the team when his mom left the family, leaving his dad (Dean Norris) inattentive to his son’s depression. The kids forge a connection that feels genuine, and twists around the tech in a reasonably convincing way. Other stories aren’t as successful. A bored married couple (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler) each secretly turn to the web to find affairs, a plotline that’s a weird blend of shame and forgiveness and, unfortunately, does not turn into a “Piña Colada Song” situation. Their son (Travis Tope) is addicted to porn. His real-life crush is a fame-hungry cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) whose mother (Judy Greer) lets her start a modeling website. Meanwhile, a fellow cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) suffers from body image problems brought about by bullying and egged on by online friends.
With a sprawling Message Movie format, there is unevenness built into the structure. Individual stories or scenes work well, but the big picture is a muddle of good intentions, flawed observations, and bad decisions. It’s all tied together with arch narration (by Emma Thompson, speaking in a voice not too far from her Stranger Than Fiction storyteller) that prattles on against the backdrop of space, speaking about Carl Sagan as NASA hardware floats by. Then she’ll dip down with an edit into quotidian explanations about character thoughts and actions, drolly telling us details we can plainly see before us. Reitman’s repetitive screenplay includes heavy-handed, awkwardly inserted, digressions reflecting on 9/11 and “my, how much the world has changed.” Yes. And? It’s a dash of self-serious muttering.
The film’s worst tendencies are reflected in Garner’s character, who has a keystroke logger on her daughter’s devices and hosts fearmongering info sessions for fellow parents. She starts as a humorless paranoid scold who means well. Over the course of her storyline, she goes from spying on everything her daughter does to stopping cold turkey. In the world of this movie, it’s all or nothing, ignoring both the very real benefits of parental oversight and the virtues of trust and flexibility. It’s too uncomfortable lingering in grey areas, too eager to wrap up conflicts. So much so that for all its overt exploring of the screen-saturated culture’s impact on individuals – I liked a recurring image of crowds, everyone looking at screens, their apps hovering translucently above them like a cloud of distraction – the worst events any characters go through happen entirely (or almost entirely) offline.
The movie seems to want a Big Statement, but isn’t sure what to say. In some ways it’s progressive, acknowledging that sometimes lonely, socially isolated people can find solace online that can improve their real world well being. And it’s certainly true that one can get lost in the muck of the web’s worst tendencies. Our world is complex. But every story in this movie that resolves wraps up neatly with a pat Internet-good-for-this, Internet-bad-for-that judgment. Other storylines drop off without resolution, maybe for the best, since I don’t think the filmmakers, though they bring the subjects up, had meaningful discussion of body image, sexual fantasies, or sex work in them. What’s here is an attempt to pass off well-intentioned fumbling in the shallow end as an important deep dive.