Shortly before watching this film, I read a news story about a Taiwanese man who died at an internet cafe after spending three consecutive days playing an online video game. Despite the fact that he was surrounded by other people at other computers, it was several hours before anyone discovered he had died. Reports say that when the paramedics came to take him away, other patrons of the cafe acted as if nothing was happening. Men, Women & Children plays like a movie written after someone (in this case, director/co-writer Jason Reitman) read a dozen or so articles along these lines and decided that they needed to speak up about the toxic effect the internet is having on our lives.
There's no question that the internet has fundamentally changed the way we live, and it would be difficult to argue that every single one of those changes has been positive. It's true that many of us have allowed digital distractions to keep us away from real-world experiences. It's true that chat rooms, comment threads and social media pages have often become outlets for rage, hatred, bullying and discord. It's true that pornography is now far easier to access than at any other point in human history, and that human sexuality is only beginning to grapple with the consequences of that. I get where Reitman is coming from, and I sympathize to a certain degree. Unfortunately, the majority of Men, Women & Children veers closer to melodramatic panic than thoughtful criticism, unconvincingly placing the blame for many of our current woes on the world wide web.
This is an ensemble film along the lines of Paul Haggis' Crash, with a series of downbeat stories weaving in and out of each other at various points. Don (Adam Sandler, Happy Gilmore) indulges his daily porn habit while his sex life with his wife Helen (Rosemary Dewitt, Rachel Getting Married) withers away. Tim (Ansel Egort, The Fault in Our Stars) quits his high school football team so he'll have more time to play a World of Warcraft-esque MMORPG, which greatly troubles his football-loving father (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad). Donna (Judy Greer, Arrested Development) is so eager to help her teenage daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia, Palo Alto) become a superstar that she sets up a website featuring sexually-charged pictures of Hannah. Brandon (Will Peltz, In Time) has a crush on Hannah, but his overexposure to all sorts of kinky bondage porn has rendered him impotent when it comes to good old-fashioned sex. So on and so forth.
In contrast to all of these stories, we have a subplot starring Jennifer Garner (Alias) as Patricia, an overprotective mother who monitors every single thing her teenage daughter Brandy (Kaitlin Dever, J. Edgar) does online. Patricia has access to all of Brandy's social media passwords, and often intercepts (and deletes) messages from boys before Brandy can access them. She's also installed a device which allows her to examine every single web page Brandy visits, which she carefully scrutinizes for hours on end on a weekly basis. On top of all of this, Patricia leads a support group for parents concerned about their children's online activity, warning them about the dangers of “demonic avatars” and sharing all sorts of horror stories about the internet. Eventually (and inevitably), Patricia's overprotectiveness leads to dire consequences, which feels like Reitman's slightly forced way of saying, “See? I get that this is a two-way street.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the film feels very much like the sort of stuff Patricia is peddling in her support group. The movie is aghast at the things the internet drives these people to: affairs, depression, eating disorders, prostitution, etc. What it never bothers to acknowledge is that human beings have been doing these things for a long, long time, and the internet merely provides a different way for us to do them. In one sequence, Don secretly uses the internet to hire an escort while Helen secretly arranges an affair through the popular cheating website Ashley Madison. Men, Women & Children makes the case that these two did these things because the internet made it easy – they saw ads, clicked on things and then casually wandered into the arms of a tender new lover. Call me cynical, but I sort of doubt that Don and Helen would be happily feeding each other strawberries if somebody removed all of the computers from their home. A side note: the fact that Helen has her affair with a sensitive, thoughtful, handsome man played by Dennis Haysbert (24) unintentionally causes the film to play as a pretty effective Ashley Madison advertisement. If you happen to be considering an affair with some random person on the internet, I would advise lowering your expectations a bit.
Admittedly, there are individual moments that work. I quite liked the romance that develops between Norris and Greer, even if it reaches a somewhat underwhelming (lack of) conclusion. The Sandler/DeWitt subplot is mostly pretty dire, but their final scene together offers a level of complexity lacking in the rest of the film (and it's always good to be reminded of what a solid presence Sandler can be when he's actually trying). J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) has a brief-but-strong scene as a father learning some terrible truths about his daughter's social life. The cast has too much raw talent for the film to be completely ineffective, but the vast majority of the time they're overwhelmed by the strident, alarmist writing.
I must confess, I'm a little troubled by the current state of Reitman's career. After four impressive, ambitious features (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air and Young Adult), he fumbled with the earnest, clunky Labor Day. That film struck me as a well-intentioned misfire, but Men, Women & Children is bad enough to make me wonder if I overestimated the quality of his previous efforts (probably not, but the thought occurred to me nonetheless). Despite the droll narration from Emma Thompson (who describes a variety of explicit sexual activities with casual frankness) and the generally muted tone, the film feels flat-out panicky in its assessment of society's current state. The things Reitman is talking about matter and they need to be addressed, but the fear-mongering peddled by Men, Women & Children isn't the way to address them.
Men, Women & Children
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 2014