[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Men, Women & Children opens today in limited release.]
It’s comforting to view the Internet as a force. Things existed one way, the Internet came along, completely changed everything, and now—for better or worse—those things are barely recognizable. We’re all looking down, clacking into our smart phones, so the Internet must have transformed us, right? It’s just so powerful, and we were caught in its wake. Current communication technology has changed us, but Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children wryly, wisely, and astutely observes our fears and insecurities long preceded our smartphones. The film is a sharp commentary on the decay of intimacy as we, isolated in the cosmos, have now become isolated from each other. Woven together with well-crafted storylines, sharp performances, and convincing drama, Reitman’s latest film mostly avoids being a cautionary tale and instead provides an insightful look on how online communication changes our relationships but doesn’t define our lives.
The plot follows several, loosely connected plotlines, which are occasionally narrated (Emma Thompson) in the tone of a quiet, nature documentary. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt) are have fallen into marital malaise, especially with regards to their sex life; their son Chris (Travis Tope) has developed an Internet porn addiction that’s caused him to start looking for kinkier stuff. His girlfriend Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia) dreams of being a celebrity, and posts a collection of risqué pinups on a personal website run by her mother, Donna (Judy Greer). Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner), is far less lenient with her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), and monitors all of her texts, posts, and even GPS location. However, Brandy does manage to find a kinship with Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), a star athlete who has quit the football team and become immersed in Guild Wars after he and his father Kent (Dean Norris) are abandoned by his mother. Finally and mostly unrelated to all of these characters is Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), an anorexic sophomore cheerleader who uses vile “thinspiration” websites to support her eating disorder.
Narratively, Allison’s inclusion feels like a little bit of a loose end even though her story is, as you’d expect, heartbreaking. But thematically, she’s in line with almost every other character. Eating disorders existed before Tumblr, but now people suffering from anorexia have a way to reinforce their illness. Reitman can never grow her story beyond tying pro-ana websites to the universal body image issues people have always felt, but Kampouris’ performance makes us want to see more of Allison instead of being relegated to a story that was too emotionally powerful to discard, but too narratively undeveloped to warrant inclusion among the other plotlines.
With the exception of Chris’ story, all of the plotlines in Men, Women & Children thoughtfully seize on timeless conflicts that have been reframed by our relationship with technology. A depressed married couple, an over-indulgent mother-daughter relationship, an over-bearing mother-daughter relationship, and a distant father-son relationship exist independent of technology. When Don and Helen lay in bed playing Words with Friends instead of talking, the core of the scene is how their passion has fizzled down to a triple word score. The iPads and the game will feel dated to future generations, but dying marriages will be just as familiar.
Focusing on the use of Internet technology is a bit of a hook, and Reitman eases off off it as the movie evolves. His willingness to fill the screen with text-box graphics and other imagery to make the Internet its own character dissipates as he makes the story about people rather than users. What makes the focus on the Internet more than a gimmick is how this widespread form of communication exacerbates and obfuscates even though it’s supposed to be more advanced. All we’ve done is add more noise and found a faster to distance each other.
Throughout the film, we see the Spacecraft Voyager drifting through space. We hear the albums that Carl Sagan (whose “A Pale Blue Dot” is also referenced) selection overlaid with thousands of indistinct voices. Sound can’t travel in space, but we’ve made it so noisy. We’re desperate to be heard, and even though we have countless more devices than we did in 1977 when NASA launched Voyager into outer space, we still can’t hear each other. It’s a brilliant framing device that shows how the film sees Internet communication not as a current events issue, but an issue of human relationships when faced with endless nothingness. We’re in the void, crying out to be heard, and the people we love aren’t listening.
And when all of the fancy text bubble graphics are stripped away, we can hear that loneliness loud and clear. Men, Women & Children isn’t about flash and big performances. It’s about inner pain, and it’s Adam Sandler of all people who sets the subdued, restrained tone. This isn’t a movie about histrionics and people smashing Blackberries. The entire is cast is tremendous with my personal standouts being Elgort, Dever, and Norris, although to be fair, they’re the three characters furthest from the Internet, so they’re already more compelling by virtue of disassociation. But no one really takes the lead and no one falls behind because everyone is working in service to the film’s larger ideas.
The only time where the movie falters is with how it tries to handle Chris’ porn addiction. Chris’ storyline is still on the same thematic wavelength with regards to intimacy since he’s sexually dysfunctional after discovering online porn at age ten, so when he’s confronted with a real sexual encounter, he doesn’t know how to function. But this is an issue that sprouts from the Internet rather than through it, and it feels like a warning as a result. The plotline is still good for some laughs since it gives Emma Thompson some deliciously R-rated lines say with utmost dignity, but it’s ultimately outside of what makes the movie so compelling.
The Internet has undeniably changed the way we communicate, but I don’t believe it’s changed us on a fundamental level, and like our place in the universe, that’s both daunting and encouraging. Men, Women & Children will endure because the issues it presents will remain relevant far longer the newest social network or latest smart device. There is no app that can fix your marriage. There is no website that can bring back the parent who abandoned you. There is no program that can stop anything bad from happening to your child. No matter how many devices we’re using and websites we’re browsing to try and escape from our lives and control our world, it’s still just us.