Men, Women, and Children opens on images of the Voyager spacecraft as it makes its way across the solar system. It passes by Jupiter’s red spot just as Adam Sandler’s name appears in the opening credits, which briefly made me entertain the notion that either director Jason Reitman or somebody on the postproduction team had read our own David Edelstein’s review of You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, in which he memorably wrote that the actor had “a floating anger like Jupiter’s great red spot.” Those folks may not want to read this review, however.
Images of space might seem like an odd way to begin a mild comedy-drama about suburban life here on Earth, but the pointed incongruity doesn’t end there. Next, we get the lilting, aristocratic tones of Emma Thompson's omniscient narration informing us that the Voyager had been sent out to the farthest reaches of space with a set of records to “potentially give extraterrestrials a sample of life on Earth” — the sounds of whale calls, crashing waves, a human heartbeat.
But then — wait for it, here comes the Irony — that same dulcet-toned, oh-so-British narration continues as the film flashes down to Adam Sandler in an American suburb getting ready to jack off to internet porn. The voice-over then observes, with just a hint of melancholy, that Sandler’s character, Don Truby, couldn’t really use his malware-infested computer anymore. Nor can he use his imagination, either, because it’s been infested with a different kind of malware: “The sheer variety and quality of the internet,” we’re told, “had left his brain a poor substitute.” So, Don does the next best thing. He goes to his teenage son’s computer — whereupon he finds the domination porn his boy has been enjoying. The narrator then observes that Don felt “a sadness” that the age-old parenting ritual of the son discovering the dad’s porn stash is now a thing of the past.
I’m dwelling on the details of these early scenes because they give a sense of what the rest of Men, Women and Children is like. Reitman’s film, adapted by the director and Erin Cressida Wilson from Chad Kultgen’s novel, doesn’t dwell too much on any one character, or any one particular facet of our hyperconnected world. Rather, it seeks to create a fresco of How We Live Today™. The dramatis personae are a group of suburban folks who intersect in different ways. Don and his wife, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), are living through a sexually flat-lining marriage; their son, Chris (Travis Tope), is a football player who’s starting to develop a fascination with S&M, and has also attracted the attentions of cheerleader and aspiring model Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia); Hannah’s enabling mom Donna (Judy Greer) helps the daughter post racy photos of herself online, under the guise of helping the girl with her modeling career.
On the opposite end of the enabling spectrum is Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who rifles through her daughter Brandy’s (Kaitlyn Dever) online interactions with all the overzealous diligence of a human spam filter, deleting any email or text message she finds even remotely suspicious. Brandy, for her part, is a fairly independent-minded girl who is starting to strike up a romance with Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), a melancholy football star who’s just quit the team, both because he’s still reeling from his mom’s departure a year ago and also because he wants to make more time for the multiplayer game called GuildWars that’s already serving as an alternate existence for him.
And so the movie goes, in tried-and-tired-and-trite-and-true we’re-all-connected fashion. The characters I’ve mentioned above represent just some of the subplots the film follows. Along the way it also touches on anorexia, bullying, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and, naturally, our quest for celebrity. Meanwhile, armies of humanity wander through malls looking down at their smartphones. Families watch TV with everybody engrossed in their own reality. Teens sit around talking to and through each other while texting with the other person right next to them. The film isn’t necessarily condemning this behavior, however — it’s too cool and above-it-all to do that. Rather, it wants to cast a melancholy, only mildly judgmental eye in our general direction; later, it even acknowledges some of the ways our online existence does in fact bring us closer together. But the film is so enamored of its own facile ironies that it fails to go anywhere with its observations. Believe it or not, Meaning isn’t instantly created when we hear the all-knowing, proper British narrator say things like “titty-fucking cum queen”; that’s just a lame Mr. Belvedere joke updated for the internet porn age.
The movie continues to dither forth, colliding with its own ambitions. Promising story lines get discarded for the whole, which is significantly less than the sum of the parts. For example, unbeknownst to one another, Sandler and DeWitt’s frustrated married couple embarks on affairs they've arranged online. The actors are up to the challenge: Sandler, in full-on mopey schmoe mode, makes an effective Everyman, and DeWitt, one of our best actresses, can do more with a mere glance than most performers do with a thousand monologues. I wish it had stayed with them. But no, it’s soon off to the next thing, because it wants to present a grand vision of America, unaware that the closest route to the big picture is often through the particular. (And alas, the subplot of the Trubys’ competing affairs is wrapped up in such a glib, shallow manner that I straight-up almost screamed inside the theater.)
Still, Reitman deserves credit for trying to capture the textures of online life — more so than just about any major director who's tried to depict a world where everybody's texting or otherwise existing virtually. These are not particularly insightful or original images, but there’s an elegance to the way everybody in Men, Women and Children floats through seas of screens, text boxes, snapshots. It's a thankless task for a filmmaker, too. We all relate to technology in our own ways, and the film is bound to be met with claims that it "gets it all wrong" or whatever. But that’s not the real issue. The real problem is that the film doesn't know what to do with its depiction of life in the interconnected age. It’s a nothing movie.