If you watch the first trailer for Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children, the one without dialogue and scored with The Plantains’ dreary cover of “I Feel Loved,” you don’t need to see the rest. The trailer doesn’t so much spoil the movie as the movie has nothing to say that isn’t succinctly stated in that two-minute video. We’re all on our internet devices a lot, we’re a disconnected society, we’re all sad, yada yada. The two-hour cut of the drama does little else with the characters and situations introduced in the trailer nor with the themes and obvious, well-established points about the digital age. You don’t need to see these elements come to their predictable climaxes and conclusions, and you certainly don’t need narration from Emma Thompson overstating what’s going on.
That voiceover starts the movie as we’re told about the Voyager 1 probe (which we’ve been watching portrayed during the opening credits) and how it’s just made its way beyond our solar system. Thompson has an upbeat tone to her speech, eventually revealed to be in stark contrast with the rest of the movie, and the way she goes on with such broad expositional contexts as the universe and our place in it, there’s a kind of Douglas Adams drollness to it. But the wit is absent – is this even supposed to be comedic? – and soon the narration is mainly just telling us details about characters as we’re meeting them, a bit of shorthand for actually letting us get to know these people, and making unnecessary and sometimes redundant comments about their actions. The narration quickly disappears, though, and returns in such brief, intermittent spurts that its existence is forgotten for large sections of the story.
The characters, an ensemble of loosely connected figures representing basic story arcs regarding the Internet, include an overprotective mother (Jennifer Garner) who monitors and tracks the keystrokes and physical whereabouts of her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) with more vigilance than the NSA does with known terrorists. This teenage girl has to set up a secret Tumblr page just to feel free and fully express herself, and then she meets and has to keep hidden a relationship with a depressed ex-jock (Ansel Elgort), who is going through an existential crisis after the departure of his mother and his having read Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” which responds to a famous Voyager 1 photograph by pointing out the insignificance of humanity and our history in the grand scheme of the galaxy and beyond.
There are others, but they hardly matter, and not just because of the Sagan ideas piggybacked upon by the movie. Some of them surprisingly have little to do with the digital age at all. An unhappy couple (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler) find fulfillment outside their marriage in ways that don’t necessarily require the websites employed for their affairs. There’s an anorexic teen (Elena Kampouris) who has made her way into the script from an old after school special, one made before girls could find encouragement through pro-ana forums. Also, most of the intertwining stories in the script, which is by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson based on a novel by Chad Kultgen, are really about the failures of parents rather than the influence of the net and its plugged-in culture. One scene depicting a meeting of concerned moms and a dad is so unrealistic, though, that the movie comes off being even more oblivious about their role than they do.
When actually dealing with genuine and specific issues pertaining to the web, Men, Women & Children does come close to offering intriguing narratives, but none of these end up with satisfying results. The most interesting character studies include one centered on a teen boy (Travis Trope) who has been looking at internet porn for so long that he can’t get aroused by basic stimulants. But he’s given so little focus and even less follow-through that you’ll wish you’d just watched Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac instead. Then there’s the cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) who is into him and has her own problems. Actually, she’s just a remake of the Mena Suvari character from American Beauty. It’s her mother (Judy Greer) who provides the most alluring storyline, if only because her motives for exploiting her teen daughter through a subscription-based non-nude-yet-sexually suggestive modeling site are so unclear for so long. Unfortunately the closure there is as disappointingly bland as the rest of the movie’s subplots.
Maybe it’s supposed to be so dull, to fit with Sagan’s comments about our triviality combined with the reality that our lives are not so important as we make them seem on the web. That’s a long way to go for a simple point, but there’s definitely a coldness to the movie, from its experimental score by Bibio to its heavy contrivances of calculated plot, functional characters, none of whom feel alive enough to exist outside of what’s written on the page (save for maybe a father played earnestly enough by Dean Norris), and a gimmick placing texts and Facebook pages and malware spam on the screen – a sort of fourth-wall fortification that makes what we’re watching seem like it’s inside a glass enclosure. We’re watching people interact in a living diorama in a zoo on Vonnegut’s Tralfamadore, only it’s more like something acted out by aliens who’ve observed the most basic of human life in the 21st century. The early 21st century, to be specific, since Men, Women & Children often feels quite dated, as if wholly informed about the internet by a Frontline documentary from 2008.
Movies that are stagy and feature characters as players more than people aren’t a bad thing, though much of the time such works of non-realism are disliked for their unnatural choices and manner. Paul Haggis’s Crash is one of the best examples how divisive they can be, and many are referring to Men, Women & Children as “Crash for the internet.” But Crash, whether your enjoy its approach, made people think about racism in America today by unrealistically externalizing internal thoughts and a hidden issue. Reitman’s movie doesn’t have a fraction of the substance that propels Haggis’s ideas, instead delivering an empty work with stale or unsure resolutions about a very visible part of our modern world. There is not one surprise, not one noteworthy moment in this feature, not even Sandler’s supposedly great yet really just serviceable performance, which is frankly less interesting than anything he’s done in his broad comedy roles. It’s already just a pale dot in the universe of movies, and it likely will be barely seen at all as time goes on.
The Upside: Dever proves, post-Short Term 12, that she’s someone to watch for; Norris also does good work for such an underwritten part.
The Downside: Cold, dated, simplistic and dull; has nothing to say or do and nowhere to go beyond its setup (which can be seen in the trailer).
On the Side: An extreme case of online gaming addiction is referenced in the movie, the story of which can be found in the recent HBO documentary Love Child.