As Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children opens, Emma Thompson narrates the story of the Voyager spacecraft and its journey to the ends of the universe. It’s meant as a testament to humankind’s insatiable proclivity to discover, which Reitman juxtaposes with the self-obsession enabled by modern social media, cellphones, computers, and the like, all of which are littered throughout the writer-director’s excruciating two-hour harangue. In Reitman’s view, nearly every social concern is made all the more insidious by fact of the Internet being involved, from anorexia, depression, and pedophilia to adultery, divorce, and parental control. And in detailing the thorny freedoms allowed by the Internet and social media, Reitman shows and proliferates a distinctly ignorant brand of smugness in offering a frankly insulting answer to these ills.
Let’s forget for a moment that this fear-mongering attitude toward the Web is nearly a decade too late in the game, and would likely have come a few years later without the aid of the Internet and devices that Reitman criticizes, sans wit, insight, or subtlety. His main focus seems to be on how all of this effects upper-middle-class white parents in Austin, Texas, beginning with Don and Helen Truby (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), who are finding themselves romantically stalled-out right as their eldest son, Chris (Travis Tope), is beginning to discover his own distinct sexuality. Don’s issue is stereotypically tied to a love of porn—brace yourselves for jokes about malware!—that leads him to an online escort service ad, just as Helen begins to seek out extramarital affairs on the Internet.
It’s best not to think too long on just how brazenly hypocritical it is for a film like this to clearly advertise sites like Ashley Madison, Porn Hub, and Facebook while simultaneously hanging this latest cultural wave of sanctioned self-importance around their collective necks. To be fair, Tumblr does receive a kind of endorsement, as it’s the only place where Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) is allowed to express herself while living with her control-freak mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), who has her every online movement archived. Their relationship becomes even more strained when Brandy falls for Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), a fellow student with a penchant for online gaming, which serves as a replacement for the football team he quit and a way of coping with his mother abandoning him and his father, Kent (Dean Norris).
It’s Facebook pictures that lead Tim to learn of his mom’s recent engagement, and it must be said that the film is particularly critical of its female characters. Though Don starts to regularly visit a local escort while his wife goes on dates, he gets to play the moral authority when he tells her that they’re going to ignore each other’s infidelities. Patricia bullies a teenager into committing suicide and trashes her daughter’s personal belongings, while her husband is characterized as a run-of-the-mill dad without a care in the world. Then there’s Judy Greer’s Joan, who runs a quasi-pornographic site featuring her daughter, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), who’s put in her place finally by Chris. Not for nothing does Joan not feel the full weight of her actions until Kent, her new boyfriend, scolds her. And as for Thompson, she seems utilized for little more than her pronunciation of “titty fucking cum queen.”
It’s a lot of story, much of which is barely fit for Lifetime, and this isn’t even counting Allison (Elena Kampouris), Hannah’s friend who visits pro-anorexia chat rooms and, of course, must bear the disappointment of her father (J.K. Simmons). As far as the narrative structure goes, the comparisons to Paul Haggis’s Crash are hard to ignore, especially as the script similarly offers only simple, unthinking answers to questions of tremendous sociological and historical complexity. Does a parent stand a chance at imparting personal values or wisdom when so much information and opinion is so readily available via Wi-Fi? Big question, to be sure, but Reitman fails to take into account any of the positive endeavors enabled by social media, which will no doubt be used to promote and market his film. His answer is to disconnect, which is to say ignore these advances, an opinion underlined by the final shot. There’s a rotten sort of nostalgia to all of this, one that harkens back to long before the Voyager was shot up into the stars, and Reitman’s hardly veiled idealization of the past taints every half-baked notion about our present that he displays here.