It says something about us as a culture that the moment that provokes gasps of shock in “Men, Women & Children” comes when a media-paranoid mother deletes text messages from her teenage daughter’s phone.
We’re shocked at this parental betrayal, the invasion of privacy. It’s only later that we remember, “Oh yeah, Mom PAID for the phone” and that everything else in this ensemble social media soap opera underlines how that shrill mother (Jennifer Garner) is right to be scared to death of how children, women and men are abusing this new hand-held god we worship.
It’s too bad this broad, heavy-handed tragi-comedy undercuts many of its most though provoking moments, further evidence that after this, “Young Adult” and “Labor Day,” director Jason Reitman may never come close to “Up in the Air” again.
The opening blunder of this social media sermon is the ironic, dry and sometimes jokey-profane narration that begins the film and deflates it throughout. Emma Thompson voices that miscalculation, connecting events in and around East Vista Texas High School with Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” view of the “pale blue dot” planet that we live on and the Voyager spacecraft.
Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler are drifting through a marriage that has him obsessed with online porn and her bored enough to visit a “have an affair” dating site. Their teen son (Travis Tope) is so deep into web porn that his adolescent desires may be permanently warped.
Judy Greer plays a single mom whose failed acting career means she’s willing to exploit her aspiring-floozy of a daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) on a website filled with provocative poses. The kid, Hannah, is a cheerleader anxious to come off as a tramp. Both she and mom call her web devotees “fans” when “perverts” is closer to the mark.
Allison (Elena Kampouris) is also a cheerleader, one who spent the previous summer tapping into the online eating-disorder underground, starving herself into a stick figure. Somehow, her parents (J.K. Simmons is the dad) fail to notice her emaciated state and the walls covered with photos of rail-thin models, egging on her anorexia.
Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever of TV’s “Justified”) is the bookish girl whose mother (Garner) oversees her social media activities and organizes other parents to do the same. That could put a damper on the attentions of sensitive, sweet football dropout Tim (Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Our Stars”).
This is the “normal” relationship here. They actually talk, try to connect. They touch, in a nonsexual way. Everybody else is constantly staring down at their phone or tablet, cutesy thought-bubbles showing what they’re typing pop up over their heads.
Tim’s quitting the team in football-obsessed Texas is a sign of crisis. He’s deep into Sagan’s “pale blue dot,” and figures football is pointless and “doesn’t matter.” Blasphemy.
“Something about sitting down and talking with Brandy DID matter, and this was enough,” the narrator drones.
That’s as quotable and as deep as “Men, Women & Children” gets. There are a TV season’s worth of soap opera betrayals, melodramatic traumas and blundering efforts to learn from and escape this media miasma.
And standing, tearful and fearful, in judgement is Garner’s mother figure, ridiculed and mockable and proof positive that Reitman just doesn’t get his own point.
“Before you go, I’m going to give you a pamphlet on the dangers of selfies!”
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout-some involving teens, and for language
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner
Credits: Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Erin Cressida Wilson and Jason Reitman, based on the Chad Kultgen novel. A Paramount release.
Running time: 1:54