Making movies about the Way We Live Now is a bit of a high-wire act. In their attempt to give voice to the things that keep us up at night, our fears and anxieties, these films run the risk of feeling like old news by the time they make their way to theaters. Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children wants to be one of these zeitgeist movies in the manner that his 2009 downsizing drama Up in the Air was. It asks: Why, in an age when we’re more connected to others than ever thanks to the Internet and social media, are we all so lonely? It’s not an idle question. But the director’s answer to it is surprisingly obvious and unnuanced.
Set in Austin, the movie introduces us to a swirling ensemble of parents and teens who are all, in their own desperate ways, searching for compassion through the cold conduit of technology. Don (Adam Sandler) is a sad-sack husband hooked on Internet porn. His wife, Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt), is so unfulfilled she arranges hotel trysts through an online cheating site. Donna (Judy Greer) is a stage mom who pimps out her fame-hungry daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) on a Lolita-esque modeling page. Patricia (Jennifer Garner) is an overprotective she-wolf who tracks her daughter’s every move with spyware. And Kent (Dean Norris) is a jilted father who no longer knows how to talk to his moody, gaming-addicted son (Ansel Elgort). Reitman and coscreenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) lay out these overlapping story lines with skill but little regard for subtlety, drowning the screen in a flashy cascade of text bubbles. If the idea of watching a dozen actors type for two hours sounds riveting, you’re in luck. The problem isn’t so much what the film is saying but its shrill, alarmist tone. You don’t have to be a sociological genius to look at all of us walking down the street like zombies, obliviously staring at our smartphones, and know that something’s wrong. But Reitman’s diagnosis of the problem, as well-intentioned as it may be, feels both preachy and late to the party. C