October 17, 2014

Men, Woman & Children

This is the same software I use to keep track of Ben

Grade: D +
Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Emma Thompson (voice), Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hr. 59 min.

The recurring CGI imagery of the Voyager 1 space probe that serves as the visual and purported spiritual refrain to director Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children is spot-on. No, not as a window into the cosmic insignificance of humankind and the Pale Blue Dot it occupies. Instead, the film drifts aimlessly through a cold, lifeless expanse, winding its way past constellations of bright ideas and dim execution until winding up in a narrative black hole.

The film is a screed against the dangers of our pervasive online society … except it’s not. It’s a cautionary tale about the fragility of life, marriage and familial relations … except it’s not. It’s an insight into modern teen angst … except that’s been done to death in films immensely better than this. Essentially, Men, Women & Children is a message in search of a movie.

Set in Austin, Texas, the screenplay by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson, adapted from a novel by Chad Kultgen, follows a web of interconnected storylines involving troubled teenagers attending the same local high school and their equally dysfunctional parents. Interspersed throughout is Dogville-style narration by Emma Thompson as the voice of, I dunno, God? Mother Earth? V’Ger?

The film’s apparent aim is illuminating how the insidiousness of the Internet has eroded our families, interpersonal relationships and even our self-worth. But the most fundamental mistake Men, Women & Children makes is treating these foibles as though they didn’t exist before the Internet.

The film opens with Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), whose martial spark was doused after they happened to be having sex the morning of 9/11 (uh, OK). Now, Don frequents porn websites so often his desktop computer is clogged with malware and he has to sneak off to the PC in the bedroom of his son Chris (Travis Tope). Yet, Chris is also so addicted to hardcore porn that he can’t get an erection from anything less, even an actual randy and willing cheerleader in his bed.

To sate their arid need for intimacy, Don starts plunking down $500 an hour for the services of a voluptuous hooker. Meanwhile, Helen heads over to AshleyMadision.com and ends up bedding a series of strangers, starting with an African-American played by Dennis Hayspert. See, because the Internet caused infidelity and—gasp—apparently miscegenation, too, judging by the copious and conspicuous closeups of Haysbert's hand caressing Helen.

Meanwhile, Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort) is the star quarterback who leaves the high school football team after his mother leaves he and his dad Kent (Dean Norris) to hunt fame in California. How, Tim wiles away his free time playing Guild Wars online, and consequently Kent and Tim don’t talk much anymore because football was their common bond—because that’s a much healthier basis for a father-son relationship.

Kent starts dating Donna Clint (Judy Greer), a single mom who posts (and sells from the “private” page) semi-racy pics she snaps of her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) and uploads to Hannah’s modeling/acting website. Hannah’s obsession with celebrity sounds obsessive and treacherous until you learn that her biological father is a Hollywood producer who knocked up Donna when she moved to California years ago in search of fame and ended up on the casting couch.

[Deep inhale …] Meanwhile, Tim befriends Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), a loner who takes to Tim’s wounded, dark demeanor, and in no way his tall, athletic physique. Unfortunately, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), Brandy’s mommy dearest, keeps getting in the way of her daughter, along with everyone else in town with broadband access. Garner once again wears her countenance of pursed-lip petulance, except this time she also dons the dark-framed glasses of a tech-savvy school marm.

Patricia tracks Brandy’s online activity and computer keystrokes. She holds support group gatherings at her house where she scolds other parents on not “protecting” their children well enough. All because, well, teens never managed to get into trouble with other teens before the Web came along.

Finally there’s Allison (Elena Kampouris), another cheerleader and former fatty who began idolizing skinny online models and became bulimic over the summer in hopes of finally shagging the hunky footballer who never gives her the time of day. Because unreasonable and unhealthy body ideation is an Internet invention.

There’s little dispute that technology, particularly social media, have irrevocably altered the way we connect and relate with others. At its worst, the Internet serves as a faster and unfiltered portal for our appetites and addictions.

There are fleeting moments in Men, Women & Children that capture the effects of this societal shift. An overhead shot of a crowded school corridor shows every kid’s face buried in their smartphone, blind to everything around them except the social media screens Reitman superimposes like thought-bubbles above their heads. When Tim’s mom abruptly blocks him on Facebook, the tenor of her repudiation within our modern milieu seems to sting more than when she actually left her family. And when a misunderstood text leads to near-tragic consequences, it reminds us of the limited personal understanding actually afforded by our ubiquitous online connections.

But the film’s rapid, all-encompassing (and misogynistic, in the case of Don and Helen) resolutions belie its stance that our online ills are wide-reaching and intractable. Consequently, Men, Women & Children comes off as a moribund approximation of rambling Paul Haggis pap, and Reitman a codger howling at the evils conceived inside the Internets and its series of tubes.