Internet People, however you define them, often get crazy-defensive over any movie that depicts online communication in less than rosy terms—even if a screenplay makes the kind of arguments that Internet People might very well put forth over dinner, or on Twitter, or in a Salon thinkpiece. Movie critics in particular seem to hate when movies try to tell them the internet can do bad things, even if they agree, and I tend to think some are relishing that the newest supposed distortion is coming from a film by Jason Reitman, a favorite middlebrow-shaped punching bag. Reitman’s major crime, you see, before he even dared to depict anything on the internet in a negative light, was his continued insistence on exploiting an entirely unique case of nepotism to make a series of adult-targeted dramas and comedies, the sort that studios don’t make much anymore.
Those attempts, or even my general liking of them, do not turn Reitman’s new film Men, Women and Children good by default. But for all the concern over its hysterical judgmental ridiculousness, the movie (in theaters today) doesn’t strike me as particularly hysterical or judgmental—and its non-insubstantial ridiculousness is more dramatically-based than internet-dependent.
In fact, the movie’s most cartoonish and unbelievable character in its ensemble of adults and teenagers actually goes the other way: Patricia (Jennifer Garner), a mother so concerned with online safety that she demands control over all of her teenage daughter’s passwords, and holds alarmist meetings with other parents to spread word of online dangers. Garner gave a performance of surprising depth and sensitivity in Reitman’s Juno, where she was the subject of an adroit flip in sympathy when her seeming uptightness was revealed as sincere, mature desire for her own child. Maybe chalk that one up to Diablo Cody’s screenplay, though, because Garner receives no such sympathy for here; at best, Patricia is pitiably misguided in a way that’s difficult to picture happening in real life. At worst, she’s a melodrama generator who never seems the least bit reasonable in her vigilance.
Garner’s character is an overplayed and sour note in a movie that has the primary and honorable-seeming aim of depicting everytown suburban life through an internet filter (or, in some cases, a total lack of one). The interconnected characters are teenage classmates and their accompanying parents: Don Truby (Adam Sandler!) and his wife Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) have a functional but sparkless marriage, while their son Chris (Travis Tope) attracts the attentions of cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), whose single mom Joan (Judy Greer) encourages her acting/modeling dreams. Meanwhile, Chris’s football teammate Tim (Ansel Elgort) has quit sports and, to the confusion of his father Kent (Dean Norris), immersed himself in an online role-playing game. Tim also starts to connect with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), who has the grave misfortune to live under Patricia’s watchful eye.
This does come across a bit like a way-whiter Crash (it’s a large ensemble with not a single actor of color in a major role), but the virtual communication makes the jumps from storyline to storyline relatively organic. In one of the best sequences, Reitman cuts between Chris and Hannah sending text messages, juxtaposing borderline sexting with their actual environments (Hannah is walking through the mall with her uncomfortably bestie-ish mom). And there’s something touching about the way Tim and Brandy have to circumvent her mother’s protectiveness just to email each other — whether they’re aware of it or not, it gives their courtship an old-fashioned glow. Though they develop a real-world relationship, devices don’t impede it, and arguably help it. Similarly, the immersive MMORPG that Tim plays when he quits his high school football team isn’t depicted as a hellish obsession that ruins his life; it’s just his social outlet in times of loneliness and confusion when his football friends condemn him and his mother has left the family.
The screenplay, by Reitman and Secretary adapter Erin Cressida Wilson, does explore darker consequences of online life. Getting it worst is probably the Truby family, where Chris’s wealth of porn-watching experience has hurt his ability to get aroused by a girl right in front of him, while his parents’ marriage raises the specter of Ashley Madison and online-shopping for hookers. Sandler and DeWitt are underserved by the movie, which sometimes treats them more like hazardous side effects than people, despite the actors’ best efforts to bring out humanity (Sandler, in one of his occasional serious roles outside of the Happy Madison factory, proves again his ability to restrain himself—and by this point, his honesty playing a semi-jerk like Don Truby is more likable than the self-aggrandizement of his aw-shucks comedy roles).
The Sandler/DeWitt storyline is further hampered by the way it’s introduced: Emma Thompson, an unseen narrator, explains the specifics of Don’s porn consumption routines in a mock-serious deadpan. Actually, back up: Thompson actually begins in outer space, where she explains the path of the Voyager I satellite as it makes its way toward the edges of our solar system, the better to cutely juxtapose the clinical minutiae of porn-browsing. The Thompson narration must come from the source material, a novel of the same name by Chad Kultgren that seems to reside in a suburban neighborhood at least adjacent to Tom Perrottaville. Certainly the film’s narration brings to mind the nature-doc-like detachment of the movie version of Perrotta’s Little Children, and here it represents a stunning miscalculation. Almost none of the narrated details have any real bearing on the story, and most of it could be (or is!) conveyed visually. That only leaves, gulp, its comedic touch. Reitman has shown decent comic instincts in the past, so it’s a little chilling to think that he found the novelty of Emma Thompson explaining masturbation in smugly detached tones funny, rather than character-smothering.
The narration features less prominently as the characters start speaking for themselves, but that Reitman included it at all implies, to me, an uncharacteristic lack of confidence in this material. Even the much-maligned Labor Day had a sincere conviction in itself—and seeing it last year, before its reputation as an embarrassing botch emerged, I fell under its peculiar spell at least enough to go with it. Men, Women and Children, much as it held my attention, casts no such spell. Most of its final-stretch dramatic confrontations have the same dynamic: characters reveal hidden secrets, angering other characters, who then feel remorse. Plot threads are left hanging, sometimes evocatively but mostly not. If anything, the ways that digital communication have changed our lives bears more investigation than these temporary soap operas. The Reitman of Juno and Young Adult engages smartly with notions of nostalgia and self-definition, while Up in the Air offers a sense of disconnection that should have made him perfect for this movie. Instead, for the first time in his career, he’s made a movie that seems to struggle with unwieldy melodrama — and lose.