The internet, social media, smartphones, and apps have become an integral part of our lives, but movies still struggle to get them right on screen. It's not just the fake alternatives to Google that are used for search scenes, or the insane way any character labeled a "blogger" tends to behave. Nor is it the way things feel dated so quickly. (Though that is a major obstacle — consider how Sandra Bullock's character ordering pizza from a website pre-Seamless in The Net was meant to be a sign of her terrible isolation.) The toughest part is actually how often tech-centric stories, from Swimfan to Sex Tape and everything in between, are heavy-handed cautionary tales. We may all be online, but on screen, it's frequently still just a path to humiliation, loneliness, or ruin.
Jason Reitman's new movie Men, Women & Children, which opens in theaters Oct. 17, is the mother of all finger-wagging internet treatises. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend, is an ensemble drama weaving together the stories of different characters in a Texas suburb who, Crash-style, all embody some sort of online-enabled misery. It's a movie that yearns to be ambitious and timely, to resonate with contemporary life, but it's often so tone deaf, it's a little shocking to think that it came from the now-36-year-old director of Young Adult and Juno. Adapted from contentious author Chad Kultgen's (The Average American Male) novel of the same name, Men, Women & Children feels just as much drawn from Dateline specials and other news scare stories. The internet: It will destroy you.
Jennifer Garner plays an uptight housewife who's clearly watched enough Dateline specials herself to panic her into monitoring her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) like a prisoner: "Remember to take your phone so I can track you!" she chipperly tells the poor kid. And that's just one of Men, Women & Children's many online-enabled character foibles.
There's also a husband (Adam Sandler) and wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) whose marriage has gone stale and who look to an escort website and Ashley Madison for outside sexual satisfaction; a teenager (Ansel Elgort), upset about his mother leaving, who quits the football team and starts investing hours in playing Guild Wars to the bemusement of his father (Dean Norris); said teenager's former teammate (Travis Tope), who finds he's watched so much porn, he can't get an erection around real live girls; a cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) who seeks help from thinspiration forums in her quest to catch the eye of her crush by slimming down even more; and another cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia) who, with the help of her enabling mother (Judy Greer), maintains a website that threatens to cross into underage porn.
This checklist of internet alarmism also includes anonymous bullying, sexting, and minor catfishing. There's a shot of the mall in which every single person there is on a device — the games they're playing, texts they're sending, and tweets they're reading shown as if they were thought bubbles floating above their heads. As the unseen narrator, Emma Thompson makes solemn observations about the Voyager satellite and the crippling amount of malware preventing a character from jerking off to YouPorn.
Any of these topics alone would be worth exploring — the way easy access to all sorts of online porn is shaping tweens' conceptions of sex could be the stuff of a dozen (probably terrifying) movies. But Men, Women & Children doesn't have any interest in delveng deep into any one issue, focusing instead on collecting them all and showing them off like an assortment of frustrating chocolates. The aggregate effect isn't more powerful — it actually emphasizes how these are pretty much the same damn problems everyone faced in the pre-internet era. People still cheated, fantasized about other people, had low self-esteem, communicated poorly with their loved ones, acted overprotective, and tried to live out their dreams in their children, long before anyone had dial-up. Despite the meaning the film wants to invest in scenes of Sandler and DeWitt laying side-by-side in bed playing Scrabble with each other on their tablets without making eye contact, Men, Women & Children is, at its heart, just another creaky story about the secret misery of the suburbs.
The funny thing is, there are aspects of Men, Women & Children's treatment of technology that do ring true, but they have nothing to do with the big, bad headlines from which it draws. It's the little moments that land, like the two girls who text each other subcommentary while talking to another whom they don't like, or the Tumblr that Devers' character keeps, all in a dramatic, invented persona. Most of the cast members come off poorly through no fault of their own — Garner and Greer, for example, are stuck with characters who are particularly insane and not given the benefit of a ramping-up period that explains how they got there.
But Devers and Elgort manage a tart, believable romance amid the more anvil-like plots, finding each other thanks to social shake-ups and able to open up in ways they can't at home. The moments they share are some of the few in which the movie doesn't feel like it's hopelessly grasping for greatness — and those scenes have almost nothing to do with the online themes.
The internet may be changing the way we live, but it's glib to suggest it's the source of issues we've really always had. If there is a great movie about our ever-more-connected lives, it's not Men, Women & Children — and maybe holding out for one is the wrong idea. The online world is part of ours now, and making it the focus means turning away from the people who are using it, growing up with it, and being influenced by it. People like all of us.