If someone told you about a movie that depicts the Internet with an alarmist hysteria capable of making Reefer Madness look levelheaded by comparison, in what year would you guess said movie was made? 1996? 2000? Would you believe it was made this year? Adapted by Jason Reitman (who also directed) and Erin Cressida Wilson from Chad Kultgen’s novel, Men, Women & Children means to serve as a wake-up call concerning the ways in which modern technology is warping relationships and expectations. Instead, it plays like a tone-deaf rant from people who stumbled online for the first time last week and could not believe what they saw. Why, there’s pornography! And violent video games! Did you know there’s a whole website (is that what they’re called?) devoted to facilitating extramarital affairs? What is this world coming to? Why are you looking at your phone right now instead of listening to me?
Opening with maximum pretension—Emma Thompson, serving as omniscient narrator, places events in context by blathering on about Voyager 1 and its journey beyond our solar system—Men, Women & Children quickly introduces its iDamaged ensemble, all of whom live in the same sleepy suburb. Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) are a married couple whose sex life has gone stale; he hooks up with a high-priced escort (found online!) while she explores her options on Ashley Madison. Their teenage son, Chris (Travis Tope), is so addicted to graphic Internet porn that he finds it impossible to have “normal” sex with Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), whose mother (Judy Greer) encourages her acting ambitions by maintaining a borderline-pervy website on which Hannah models underwear and lingerie. Then there’s Tim (Ansel Elgort), the high school football star who quits the team because he’d rather play Guild Wars with his cyber-friends, to the dismay of his dad (Dean Norris), who’s dating Hannah’s mom. Tim’s also interested in Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), but that proves tricky, because Brandy’s mother (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors her every move online, even intercepting and deleting her texts.
Garner’s paranoid caricature—the least credible character in a movie that’s almost nothing but false notes—does at least prove that it’s possible to be even more clueless about Internet culture than the film itself is. Not much, though. While many of the individual storylines are ludicrously melodramatic, building toward emotional meltdowns (and one suicide attempt), it’s the cumulative fear and loathing of everything digital that crosses the line into absurdity. Like Paul Haggis’ Crash, which reduced everything in the world to racial conflict in a way that made racism look like a deranged conspiracy theory rather than an ugly fact of life, Men, Women & Children uses its microcosm of interconnected lost souls to draw sweeping generalizations that amount to overwrought scaremongering. Some of it doesn’t even make sense; bored spouses have been cheating on each other for centuries, and while the Internet may have made it slightly easier to find a willing partner, it hasn’t altered the basics.
What drew Reitman to this project is a mystery, as his slick, smartass sensibility is utterly wrong for such earnest material (just as it was for last winter’s sappy Labor Day). His notion of cutting social commentary involves shooting a room full of people who are all simultaneously tapping away on their smartphones, with the top of the frame awash in little chat bubbles indicating what everyone’s saying—not inaccurate, but not exactly trenchant, either. Reitman does, however, still have a way with actors, which is the film’s saving grace. Sandler, in particular, turns in what is probably his best dramatic performance to date, even managing to sell the hackneyed moment in which Don, nervous about his first time with the escort, keeps babbling about his boring job while she’s undressing him. Elgort and Dever find pockets of sweetness in their hesitant romance, and even Greer, saddled with a stage mom whose naivete is hard to swallow, does her best to dig up some emotional truth. Only Garner is utterly defeated by the awful script, which perhaps qualifies as some sort of tiny victory. Come to think of it, actors being replaced by virtual avatars (as in The Congress) is one of the few horror stories this film doesn’t envision. Surely it was an oversight.