The opening image is a striking one; that of the Voyager spacecraft sailing out into the solar system complete with a golden record summarising humanity’s accomplishments. If Men, Women & Children had been around to include when it launched, an alien life form stumbling across the film would walk away with the impression that the internet is an irredeemably awful creation. Using the now ageing technology of cinema to attack social media interlopers, Jason Reitman’s sixth feature remains enjoyable despite failing to reach the level of insight it shoots for.
The Luddites would have been proud as a parade of characters march by, each with a story of woe. Splashed across the screen in Reitman’s clean and polished style, the perils of social media are exposed. It turns out these sites and gadgets we can’t keep ourselves away from lead mostly to sexual abuse, mental health disorders and the breakdown of relationships. It’s only in real life, or RL as Ansel Elgort’s lonely student Tim Mooney flippantly calls it, that we can fill that empty gap inside.
Elgort lies at the heart of the strongest story. Weaving several plots together, Men, Women & Children spreads itself thinly leaving an incomplete feel to many of the strands. In Tim’s case though, Reitman’s misplaced ability to draw rich and believable characters returns. In his career to date, he’s demonstrated an intimate fluency in the inner life of the people who populate his films. Labor Day last year saw this break down in a haze of dessert making schmaltz. Writing with Erin Cressida Wilson, Tim’s relationship with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), a fellow student shackled by her zealously protective mother Patricia (Jennifer Garner) breathes true.
There are other highpoints from the ensemble cast; notably the efforts of Tim’s father Kent (Dean Norris) to restart his life with Joan Clint (Judy Greer). Elsewhere, the same shallow writing that characterised Labor Day returns. Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Don Truby’s (Adam Sandler) descent into adultery, ably facilitated by the internet often feels contrived, particularly a burst of cross-cutting juxtaposing their stilted misadventures with the warmth of Kent and Joan’s growing closeness.
Even worse comes from Joan’s frankly appalling sexual exploitation of her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). The screenplay wakes up to this problem late in the day having played it for laughs earlier. There’s also laboured stabs at the sexual dysfunction online pornography causes Chris Truby (Travis Tope), the eating disorder encouraged by Allison Doss’ (Elena Kampouris) online “support group” and the frenzied insanity of Garner’s attempts to ward off all and every threat. As a final insult, a glib voiceover from Emma Thompson pops up occasionally.
Reitman isn’t done there with his already busy film. Texts and online messages pop up on the screen as it turns into a giant dashboard. The effect is impressive, the additional layer worked carefully around the underlying image, but it’s not used enough to escape the feeling that it’s all a gimmick.
Time spent under Reitman’s guiding hand is always a pleasant experience. Men, Women & Children is no exception, flowing smoothly through mounting story arcs. It’s when digging deeper that he comes up short. Underwritten tangents that exist only to make very obvious points about the danger posed by modern technology draw attention away from a strong core. Technology is undeniably changing the way we interact for better and worse. It’s deserving of a careful and measured examination. This severely one sided diatribe told in a medium that once saw the Lumière’s terrify people with a train before Will Hays laid down his code is not it. Instead, it feels distinctly like the pot calling the kettle black.