With Men, Women & Children, writer-director Jason Reitman (Labor Day, Up in the Air) really tries to capture the American zeitgeist in the span of two hours.
He opens with footage of the Voyager 1 zooming through space, launched by NASA 36 years ago with no destination, loaded with recordings of music and human voices and sounds, in hopes of encountering extraterrestrial life. But the film’s focus is are the people who live on that tiny blue dot seen from the spacecraft’s satellite’s perspective, where everyday technology has advanced with incredible speed, supposedly making our lives better.
Instead, the movie argues, cellphones and computers and iPads have only helped alienate us from each other. In one shot in a crowded shopping mall, people bustle about, looking down into their phones, their text messages floating above their heads. No one talks to each other: Everyone is too wrapped up on what is going on elsewhere.
This is far from a new idea, but the way Reitman presents it is initially intriguing, introducing us to sets of parents and their children whose lives are about to be changed by the Internet.
Adam Sandler (surprisingly good) and Rosemarie DeWitt play a married couple whose sex life has fizzled, so he hires a high-class escort online while she joins a dating site. Single dad Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) doesn’t know how to communicate with his mopey son (Ansel Elgort) after he quits the high school football team and becomes obsessed with online gaming. They have nothing in common – nothing to say to each other.
Judy Greer is grooming her daughter Olivia Crocicchia for stardom — she has even made a website for her with modeling photos — unaware that such sites are often linked to porn. Jennifer Garner is a helicopter mom who tracks all of her daughter’s text messages and keyboard strokes on her computer. Timothee Chamalet is a shy kid who harbors a crush on a girl to whom he can barely speak.
They and others go about their routines — work, school, weekends — and Reitman repeatedly illustrates how easily a simple message or posting on Facebook can be misunderstood and lead to trouble.
The movie is well-directed — Reitman keeps getting better with his camera — and with the exception of Garner, a mom so possessive you wonder whether she wishes she could stick her daughter back into her womb, the performances are strong, especially the kids’ (there’s a scene in which Elgort contemplates sending a girl a message that encapsulates the feeling of adolescent loneliness; he breaks your heart).
The problem with Men, Women & Children — and it’s a big one — is that the movie isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. Everyone has been in a situation in which people someone excuses themselves to answer their cell or send a text or obsessively check their Facebook account, putting more importance on the cyber world than on instead of reality (remember when there were no cellphones and you could have a conversation without constant interruptions?)
The 21-and-under set will watch this movie and wonder what all the fuss is about, because this is the only reality they’ve ever known. Older people who grew up before chat rooms and emoticons will get more out of what Reitman is attempting. But he goes about it in all the wrong ways, relying on so many contrivances and coincidences and unlikely accidents that you feel you’re being manipulated (the movie is based on Chad Kultgen’s novel).
The characters in Men, Women & Children are strong enough that you wish you could see them in another picture that weren’t wasn’t so obsessed on the harmful effects of technology. For all its handwringing and strong performances, the whole enterprise comes down to one simple message we don’t need to be told: Sometimes, you just have to unplug.
Cast: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Ansel Elgort, Olivia Crocicchia, Timothee Chamalet, Emma Thompson (voice only).
Writer-director: Jason Reitman. Based on the novel by Chad Kultgen.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 119 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief nudity, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.