REVIEW: 'Men, Women and Children'
When we talk about the Internet, we often describe it as a global community, made up of millions (if not billions) of smaller groups. Some of those groups have recognizable names: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr. Within these circles, we share things we love and hate; we discuss important topics and argue over ephemera.
But for all the chatter about how the Internet brings us together, it also fragments us. It lets us explore idiosyncratic interests in obsessive detail. We personalize our Internet experiences just as much as we mass together in online movements. In that fashion, almost everyone reacts to the Internet in a different way – that’s often why a video or a meme you thought was hilarious gets a blank stare when you show it to a friend.
It’s that highly individualized aspect of the Internet that makes a movie like Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children so polarizing. Because the film tries to tackle an incomprehensibly vast topic – our current relationship with technology – for some viewers, it will inevitably strike them as being tone-deaf, inaccurate, or needlessly alarmist. That’s a shame, because the film is none of those things.
I suspect it’s because those viewers’ experiences with instant messaging, online games and other shades of the Internet don’t match the ones depicted in the film. Whereas Reitman focuses on several buzzy, ripped-from-the-headlines problems we face with technology, the people who have smart and safe interactions online outnumber those who don’t. So rather than seeing the film as a collection of interconnected stories with a common theme, certain members of the audience will perceive Reitman’s movie as a finger-wagging public service announcement.
As the film begins, we zoom in on the lives of parents and teenagers at a high school in Texas, examining how their real-life relationships are molded by technology. For the kids, the Internet is second nature: they effortlessly chat face-to-face while carrying on secondary conversations on their phones. More worryingly, they’re also immersed in the intimate and explicit sides of online communication: sexting and instantly-accessible porn.
The parents are more divided; their response to technology ranges between misguided acceptance, complete bemusement and fearful control. The cast is composed of well-known stars and young up-and-comers. The sprawling cast includes Adam Sandler as a lustful, unsatisfied office worker, Jennifer Garner as a scary helicopter parent and Judy Greer as a woman who encourages her daughter to take racy photos to kickstart her acting career.
On the younger front, Ansel Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) appears as a lonely gamer, and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12) plays Garner’s surveillance-suffocated daughter. All of the casting choices felt very appropriate, though Sandler may be a divisive pick for viewers who aren’t familiar with his few dramatic roles (as in Punch Drunk Love).
Many scenes rely on slickly-animated message bubbles popping up onscreen – visual proof of how hard it is to separate real and online life. The technique is most effective in crowd scenes, when cascades of information flow over the heads of everyone in frame. It’s enough to make you try to cut back on your own smartphone use a bit, just to avoid feeling like one of the data-saturated drones from the film.
Like the film’s theme, its multi-narrative structure also puts it at a disadvantage. As Canadian writer/director Paul Haggis demonstrated with movies like last year’s Third Person and 2004’s Crash, audience reaction often splits when filmmakers decide to follow groups of characters as their paths intersect over time. A common complaint is that we don’t spend enough time with each sub-story to care about them, and the events that pull characters together are sometimes painfully contrived.
While Reitman’s film doesn’t really trip up there, it does start off on unsure footing by hitting us with a hand-holding metaphor: the film frequently cuts to shots of the Voyager 1 probe rocketing through space, forging new territory but flying ever farther away from the humans communicating with it. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “Get it!? Just like the characters!”
This is combined with some slightly irritating narration from Emma Thompson (Thompson is welcome here, but the children’s storybook script she delivers isn’t necessary). These pieces suggest Reitman is wary to begin his story – as if he’s acknowledging the incendiary nature of his topic, and doesn’t want to push too many buttons. Thankfully, the director abandons the narration after a while and digs in for a more adult approach.
The most important thing to remember about Men, Women and Children is that Reitman isn’t trying to say that all relationships are devolving into text blurbs, or that the Internet is uniformly dangerous and scary. He’s merely highlighting the kinds of grave mistakes people can make with the powerful communications tools at our disposal. Just because the film doesn’t talk about the positive, unifying aspects of technology doesn’t mean the filmmakers believe the benefits don’t exist.
In short, it’s best to take a big-picture view of Jason Reitman’s new work, as just one statement in a larger discussion about modern relationships and technology. If given the chance, Reitman may someday follow with a companion film that represents the other side of the argument. If we think about how much we still need to figure out about our technological landscape, I’d welcome the effort. Men, Women and Children gets three stars out of four.
What did you think of Reitman’s new film? Does it expose some truths about how relationships are filtered through tech? Or does it fall flat on its face, as a number of critics have pointed out? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!