Once upon a time, people wrote letters to each other and didn’t feel the need to share photos of their breakfast with the world. Cell phones and the internet changed that and now it’s normal (if we can call it that) to see a couple sitting across from each other in a restaurant, heads bowed down and fingers tapping away, occasionally nodding to acknowledge the person allegedly with them. Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children (based on the novel by Chad Kultgen) attempts to explore how our technology-driven reality affects our relationships. Of course, as soon as a filmmaker focuses on the technology of the day he risks creating a film that is dated upon release. And indeed, we’ve all been dealing with screen pop-ups for so long that when they’re portrayed populating a porn-watching character’s virus-ridden computer we chuckle in recognition but it already seems almost quaint. What makes Men, Women and Children interesting despite the familiarity of its particulars is the way Reitman skillfully weaves several separate storylines that span the generation gap from high school to middle-aged and finds ways to portray solitary internet activities, such as the use of text balloons for texting.
From a stage mom (an excellent Judy Greer) crossing the line into exploitation if not soft-core porn via a website designed to propel her daughter into stardom to an overly-anxious parent (Jennifer Garner) trying to control her daughter’s online life with near tragic results to a frustrated couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) seeking sex outside their stalled marriage, the film does an effective job of exploring how we constantly create and re-create our internet identities and how that affects our daily lives. The chief irony of today’s over-connected world is that despite being able to share anything in an instant, communication is so brief and fleeting it’s easy for people to delude themselves into thinking they are connecting when it’s mostly just ripples on the surface. Facebook especially, seems adept at allowing people to convince themselves that the mundane is dramatic when truly, the mundane is still just the mundane. Of course, solid information is there for the taking and Facebook can be seen as an instantaneous version of yesteryear’s pen-pals. The question is, what information do we put out there and what do with the varying levels of power that can engender? And the more sophisticated the tools the more cruelly they can be wielded, such as in a scene involving three high school girls, two of them texting brutally about the third in front of her oblivious face.
Although weighed down by an unnecessary voiceover narration (a prim Emma Thompson) and an air of predictability, Reitman’s sixth feature film refreshingly leaves room for ambiguity in the various storylines, not tying everything up too neatly. When the meddling of Garner’s well-meaning but overzealous mother leads to the near-suicide of her daughter’s emotionally-tortured boyfriend (an impressive Ansel Elgort), her face registers both the realization of her misdirection and her helplessness in a world in which actual internet predators do exist. That the scene avoids becoming maudlin is a testament to Reitman’s touch at controlling both the camera and Garner’s often over-the-top earnestness. Similarly, when DeWitt’s guilt-ridden wife starts to confess her hotel room dalliances to Sandler’s equally guilty husband, his reaction that it’s better if they “don’t go there,” just move on and have breakfast in peace, avoids the expected confrontation to touch on the perfunctory communication that can occur between two close individuals. This little plot swerve may stretch believability but is at least thought-provoking if not satisfying. That they both used the noisy internet to engage in wild flings yet now long for a quiet breakfast with each other gives hope that they can, in fact, move on and save their marriage. Sometimes the best communication between two connected people is an agreeable silence.