‘Men, Women & Children’
Director: Jason Reitman
Stars: Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort
1 Globe (out of 5)
Jason Reitman’s get-off-my-lawn apocalyptic fantasia about technology and social media begins in space, because of course it does. It actually starts much like “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” pondering the cosmos and all its endless wonders, before zeroing in on Earth and the silly mundanities with which humankind chooses to waste its brief existence. But instead of a funny man in a robe lying in front of a tractor, here it’s a suburban dad (Adam Sandler) using his son’s laptop to look up porn. And we’re not supposed to laugh; we’re supposed to be horrified at the depravities to which technology has led us.
Reitman started off his career as a punk libertarian smartass, with “Thank You For Smoking,” and then turned increasingly self-important. “Men, Women & Children” finds the transformation complete. It’s his “Crash” — an ensemble lament for humanity made with no real insight into people, powerfully oblivious to how reactionary, uninformed, pompous, melodramatic and sexist it is. It’s a Fox News segment inexplicably populated by talented actors, and narrated — in posh tones it in no way deserves — by Emma Thompson.
There’s no overarching plot to drag its characters through — just talking points struck one by one. Sandler and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) are so disconnected that they each decide to have affairs. Their son has been addicted to Internet porn for so long he can’t have real sex. A cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) poses for scantily clad pictures taken by her mom (Judy Greer) for her site. A high school football star (Ansel Elgort) gets addicted to a “World of Warcraft” knockoff, while a girl he’s awkwardly seeing (Kaitlyn Dever) has her every digital move tracked by her mom (Jennifer Garner), from texts to her comments left on her Facebook wall. (There’s also a token anorexic girl who seems to have wandered in from a different Issue Film or an Afterschool Special.)
There’s a scene where Garner’s overprotective monster holds a meeting for other concerned parents, her hyper-alarmism held up as a clear joke. Don’t be fooled: “Men, Women & Children” is only slightly less alarmist. Reitman creates a bleak-o-rama sci-fi present where no one talks and everyone is on their smartphones; the screen often features silent zombies and their pop-up phone screens. Normally compelling actors — Elgort, DeWitt, even Sandler — look doped up on Soma, because, Reitman warns, this is what technology has done to us. It’s like an Antonioni film without the style, or the relative heaps of compassion (again, relatively speaking). Every moment rings false, save a couple between Greer and Dean Norris, as a sadsack divorcee, and even they are ultimately forced to get in line with everyone else.
Thing is, annoying as he was, the younger Reitman could have made this…almost tolerable. It’s clear he’s using “American Beauty” as the model (as is its distributor, who are treating it like awards bait). But “American Beauty” teemed with life, whereas “Men, Women & Children” snuffs it out, in the misguided belief that this is how the world works now. It’s a film that plays like it was made by someone who hasn’t spent much time with the people he’s depicting, has maybe read a few articles and heard some things, but figured that was enough intel for a state-of-emergency screed. It thinks it’s profound, but its profundity is on the level of a 7th grader who just discovered George Orwell, and it doesn’t even realize that it punishes the female characters more than it does the males. It keeps cutting to the Voyager satellite, about to exit known space for parts unknown, and it sincerely thinks it’s getting super deep. In reality it’s as shallow as the characters it’s made up.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge