The first important image of Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children is for his production company, Right of Way Films — a logo of a man with a rolling suitcase in front of a bank of windows. It recalls, of course, his 2009 Best Picture nominee Up in the Air,and I’m gonna go ahead and put this out there: reminding everyone of the greatness you’re capable of is probably not a great idea when you’re on a losing streak. Following last year’s bizarrely tone-deaf adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day, Reitman’s latest is a peculiarly alarmist ensemble piece about how, in spite of our copious technology, we’re all just so disconnected, man. When Reitman burst on the scene with Thank You for Smoking back in 2005, he seemed bent on making another Dr. Strangelove; based on his new picture, he’s apparently spent those years harboring the desire to make another Crash.
And the worst of it is, he takes a good cast down with him. You can’t dismiss entirely any movie that’s smart enough to put Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, and Dean Norris in major roles, and to give Adam Sandler yet another opportunity to redeem himself for his lazy, fart-and-fat-joke comedies by reminding us what a fine actor he can be (when he bothers to give a fuck). And they all have their moments; occasionally those even add up to good scenes, as when widower Norris and divorcée Greer share a warm first date that glows with possibility, or when Sandler delicately explains to DeWitt exactly why they should choose not to tell each other their secrets.
That said, those natural, humanistic moments are rare in a screenplay as blatantly, problematically schematic as this one — it’s the kind of movie where you wouldn’t be surprised to discover Reitman and co- writer Erin Cressida Wilson (who co-wrote Secretary and is thus much better than this) were ticking the boxes on a literal checklist. In ungraceful fashion, they tackle porn addiction, helicopter parenting, online gaming, hookup culture, celebrity idolatry, and reality television. Would it surprise you to learn that there’s even a teen anorexia subplot? Because there’s a teen anorexia subplot.
But it’s mostly about the evil Internet, and how it keeps us all apart while enabling our worst instincts. Everyone spends all their time peering into an iPhone or typing on their desktop, their text conversations and Facebook statuses floating in the air above them (so, like all modern-technology screeds, this’ll be dated, oh, tomorrow); a listless couple uses an escort service and Ashley Madison for extracurricular activities; a terrified mother tracks her daughter’s every move via GPS and social media; a recently divorced father worries about his son’s endless hours playing RPGs; a newly thin cheerleader uses skinny empowerment sites for role models and encouragement.
Oh, and then there’s the mother who uses the ol’ World Wide Web to set up a dirty website for her teenage daughter, a would-be model/ actress. I cannot begin to tell you how effectively this wholly unbelievable thread manages to single-handedly unravel the narrative, but I can assure you that when even Judy Greer can’t sell a plot point, it should not be employed. (Same goes for the ill-advised Emma Thompson voice-of-God narration, which all but does play-by-play in the first half of the movie, disappears in the second, and then returns at the end to shoplift some gravitas by reciting Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot.”)
Yet as with Labor Day, it’s impossible to dismiss the picture outright; Reitman is a talented director (I was with him right through Young Adult and hope he does whatever it takes — a Diablo Cody reunion, perhaps — to pull out of this nosedive) and he can still stage a poignant scene. There’s a genuine tenderness to the interactions between lonely, helicoptered Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) and former footballer Tim (Ansel Elgort); their interactions are rich, well-written, and sensitively acted. There is a scene of fumbling, unsuccessful first-time sex between two characters that rings so true, it’s hard to watch. Sandler and DeWitt create a convincing portrait of a marriage that’s lost its passion entirely by accident; Sandler is also very funny on his first escort “date,” while the anxiety on DeWitt’s face as she decides whether to respond to her first illicit email is priceless. And both beautifully navigate their characters’ deep sadness in the scenes that follow.
The best elements of Men, Women & Children have one thing in common: they’re not really about the evils of the Internet. Jennifer Garner — who is making a puzzling specialty of playing lame, dull squares — is cast in the villainous role of the too-concerned parent who interferes unforgivably in her daughter’s affairs, all “for her own good”; throughout the film, she is seen (accurately) as a hand-wringing, paranoid scold. Perhaps what’s most shocking about the movie is that Reitman didn’t realize how closely he’s following her example.
Men, Women & Children is out tomorrow in limited release. It goes wide on October 17.