Jason Reitman's ambitious ensemble drama Men, Women & Children strives for relevancy. This adaptation of Chad Kultgen's novel wants to expose how our interactions on, and relationship with, social media erode our ability to form human connections. It's an intriguing theme, but the movie becomes such an unrelenting screed about the dangers of the Internet that it ends up feeling more like a lecture than a story.
The film introduces us to a number of parents and teenagers, none of whom are happy. Don (Adam Sandler) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a couple whose marriage has hit an emotional dead end. They don't click anymore, and while Don frequently watches pornography online, he discovers that his son Chris (Travis Tope) has developed viewing appetites that go way beyond anything he has ever imagined.
Chris exchanges heavily suggestive text messages with Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), who's the kind of teen who openly brags about her sexual conquests and dreams of becoming a celebrity. Those dreams are fed by her single mother/manager Donna (Judy Greer), who takes modeling photos of her daughter and runs a website designed to get Hannah's name and face out there.
One night, Donna attends a meeting of parents run by Patricia (Jennifer Garner), an uptight, paranoid woman who plays the role of Big Brother for her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), monitoring all of her online activities with the tenacity of the NSA. While there, Donna starts flirting with Kent (Dean Norris) a widower who is concerned that his grief-stricken son Tim (Ansel Elgort) is ignoring his talents at football to spend most of this free time playing an online video game.
In his first four films, Jason Reitman showed a knack for using a "big topic" as the background to tell unique human stories. Juno wasn't about teen pregnancy so much as it was about a pregnant teen, just as Up in the Air wasn't really about unemployment even though it centered on a corporate hatchet man. Men, Women & Children fails exactly where those earlier pictures succeeded -- Reitman has shortchanged his characters in favor of ringing warning bells about society's problems.
According to this film, female body issues, eating disorders, porn, the breakdown of the family, pedophilia, and a number of other ills stem directly from our overreliance on the Internet. Not once does Reitman suggest that online activity could be used for good, because that would upset his central thesis.
Reitman's previous movie Labor Day was an alarming misfire, one that represented the first time the talented filmmaker's attempts to fuse seemingly disparate tones failed; the heavy-handed romance and crime melodrama never seemed to be in the same picture as the tender coming-of-age story he was trying to tell. Men, Women & Children doesn't make that same mistake, but that's only because it has one tone that it hits over and over again. It's a film that's alarmed with 21st century culture, and while its concerns aren't unrealistic, its portrayal of them is.
The gifted cast, some of whom have been quite good in previous Reitman movies, do what they can with characters who seem less like real people than preprogrammed figures with nothing to do except impart lessons. Adam Sandler isn't an untalented dramatic actor, but he's at his best when he can let a little humor shine through, and there's no room for levity in the world Reitman has created. Out of everyone, Judy Greer gets the only scene in which a character is honest about what he or she is doing and tries to change. It's the best moment in the movie, but it doesn't make up for the fact that Men, Women & Children feels as disconnected from real life as it warns the Internet is making us.