Sometimes a movie makes a statement. Sometimes it just thinks it does. In Men, Women & Children, the impact of digital technologies on interpersonal exchanges is purportedly probed for all to see. We’re not only caught up in our daily minutiae, the film appears to posit, but our interactions are so often mediated and dictated by the online world that truly connecting with our loved ones is impossible.
An interstellar framing device certainly labors this point, announced in the unseen Emma Thompson’s dulcet tones. Linking to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, the sequence bookends the feature’s musing on modern relationships. The narration waxes lyrical about the juxtaposition of our supposed importance: we blast tokens of our species into space as if someone might care, yet given our tiny place in our universe, our daily realities can only be trivial and insignificant. Living life through the internet doesn’t matter; we’re best spending our time cultivating physical, tangible bonds with those we care about.
Adapted by writer/director Jason Reitman from the novel of the same name, Men, Women & Children states its case through intertwined vignettes. Across an average American community, lives and loves are influenced by devices on desks and in hands. A married couple (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler) seek sexual fulfilment not from each other but through an affair website and prostitution. Their son (Travis Tope) has a porn habit that means he can’t relate to his wannabe actress classmate (Olivia Crocicchia), who posts semi-clad modelling pictures online with the help of her mother (Judy Greer).
Said single parent warms to an abandoned father (Dean Norris) concerned that his son (Ansel Elgort) prefers gaming to football. And so it continues, with the lapsed athlete falling for a melancholy teen (Kaitlyn Dever) constantly surveilled by her fear-mongering mother (Jennifer Garner). Then there’s the cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) with body issues and a crush on an older boy (Will Peltz) unnoticed by her father (JK Simmons). Everyone has names, but they need not; they’re symbols, a means to an end, faces placed upon narrative convenience.
That the ensemble is rendered in such broad terms, with a clear lack of subtlety and satire from the maker of Juno and Young Adult, is what makes Men, Women & Children alarming to watch. Surprisingly, it’s not the messaging that grates, because the bland material constantly undermines its own aim. The characters aren’t cast adrift by their technological predilections, but by their self-involvement, both of the on- and off-line variety.
The usual Reitman aesthetic polish is evident, and the performances from the largely high-profile cast are effective; however, it all amounts to a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. With the supposed rallying against digital living too easily dismissed by inconsistent plot machinations, all that results is a soapy dramedy on the struggles of sex and secrets that has been done before and better by the likes of American Beauty and Crazy, Stupid Love.