If people stopped using voiceovers tomorrow, it would already be too late. Nothing made this more clear than having Emma Thompson’s voice ruined (do you know how hard this is? She has the voice of an angel) in Jason Reitman’s new film Men, Women & Children. Somewhere along the line, someone must have realized that having Thompson’s prim and matronly voice articulating all sorts of profanities would be funny. And it was, for the first couples of lines. But then, it got tired, and as voiceover is so prone to do, fell to preaching and assuming the audience is stupid, which is perhaps the greatest offense a filmmaker can make. Unfortunately, preaching seemed par for the course in a film essentially about how technology and social media are ruining our lives. It’s like some curmudgeon from an older generation making a film about millenials.
Men, Women & Children is tale of intertwining narratives à la Crash, all revolving around teenagers and their parents in a suburban town, and the mal-presence technology has in their lives. To quickly sum up: there’s the couple who feel so alone they search for affairs online (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt), while their teenage son (Travis Tope) becomes so invested in online pornography that he can’t perform sexually in reality. There’s the girl (Olivia Crocicchia) he’s not performing well with sexually, a cheerleader, who has a risqué “modeling” website run by her mother (Judy Greer). She starts dating a man (Dean Norris) whose wife has just run off to California with another man, only visible through social media, and whose son (Ansel Elgort), the star athlete, has quit the football team in an apathetic funk that leads him to spend all day playing virtual reality games. He finds himself dating a girl (Kaitlyn Dever) whose scarily obsessive mother (Jennifer Garner) stalks her internet and technology presence to the point of the girl having a very secret tumblr account. There’s also another cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) who is anorexic and maintains her ideals of beauty by online chatrooms based around the nexus of thinness. That may not be everyone because you know, the internet screws up all of us.
Ultimately, there were a few strong components about the film. DeWitt continues to be one of the most important modern actresses and her performances are never short of 100%, this included. The interactions between the teenagers, particularly in regards to their sexuality, feel, often real. And the storyline of the mother who takes suggestive photos of her daughter is dark enough to be outside of the comfort zone Reitman has built for himself in his last few films (Young Adult not withstanding, which I still think is great) and humanizing enough to be brave.
The problem is though, when you take such a smarmy stance, you are implicitly put on a pedestal. The person who is able to pass judgment under the nebulous grounds of morality and because of the earnest desire to show just how much, the characters’ reiteration of “I don’t know how we got here,” applies to us all. The problem with that is inevitably there’s going to be hypocrisy in the argument. As Chris Cabin of Slant Magazine pointed out, “Jason 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.” This is the problem with the blanket, focusless judgment: it leaves the judger looking the most foolish of all.
Men, Women & Children opens today in Philly area theaters.