ZOMG, the internet, right? It's changing the way humanity thinks, loves, lives! It's connecting strangers and terrifying middle-class white suburban parents everywhere.
In fact, the internet is apparently so world-changing that, when director Jason Reitman set out to make a drama about its effects on the aforementioned middle-class white suburbanites, he framed the story with shots of Voyager 1, just to put things in a sufficiently cosmic context. An ultra-cultured narrator (Emma Thompson) does her best to yoke the serene beauty of outer space and the attendant reflections on human insignificance to the film's actual narrative. But, because that narrative is essentially a middling ABC Family drama with an overachieving cast, she fails spectacularly.
Using that ponderous framing device was a massive misstep for Reitman, who showed a defter hand in films such as Juno and Up in the Air. Adapted from Chad Kultgen's novel, Men, Woman & Children is an ensemble drama with some halfway-affecting bits, some boilerplate bits and some dumb bits. It has the substance of a passable indie, but its overweening pretensions lift it into the more interesting category of a fiasco.
So, who are these people whose little lives the internet has overturned? Adam Sandler plays an online porn addict who logs on to his teenage son's computer only to discover that the kid shares his habit. Meanwhile, his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) seeks extramarital spice online. A high school football star (Ansel Elgort) quits the game to focus on Guild Wars, to the consternation of his dad (Dean Norris). The latter starts dating a photographer (Judy Greer) who fosters her teen daughter's Hollywood aspirations by posting boudoir pics of her online. Representing the opposite extreme, Jennifer Garner plays a mom who monitors her level-headed daughter's every keystroke lest she fall prey to cyber-predators.
Those are but a few of the men, women and children portrayed here — most of them thinly conceived stock figures, some of them given life by superior performances. Greer and Norris build a genuinely touching rapport, as do Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Garner's over-monitored daughter. Sandler and DeWitt bring their groaningly familiar marriage-malaise plot to a surprisingly graceful conclusion. And Olivia Crocicchia, as the Hollywood wannabe, gives the movie a shot of humor it desperately needs with her jaded teen perma-pout. When she and the budding porn addict (Travis Tope) try to get it on IRL, the results are all too embarrassingly believable.
What do all these mini-dramas have to tell us about internet culture — let alone life on Earth as a whole? Very little we don't already know, and nothing about people who don't inhabit the Middle American suburban ecosystem. A few of the narratives might have yielded insights if they'd been explored in more depth, particularly Greer's character's twisted quest to relive her sexy youth through her daughter.
Given the plethora of plots, Reitman has no choice but to stay in the shallow end. He did, however, have a choice about framing it all with Voyager, Jupiter and Carl Sagan — whose words, quoted at a crucial juncture, vastly outclass the script.
Reitman has, perhaps, done us a favor by giving the definitive demonstration of something we should already know: Technology is such an indispensable part of so many people's lives in so many ways that any attempt to encompass the phenomenon in an Oscar-friendly package is merely insulting. You might as well make a movie that tries to grasp the essence of "talking" or "loving." To someone who isn't aware of kinky porn sites, massive multiplayer online games or sexting, Men, Women & Children might be a revelation; to the rest of us, it's one long alarmist "think piece" in a magazine you'd never read.