By Carrie White & Alec Julian
Opening with a sweeping view of a starry sky, Jason Reitman’s MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, a hyperlink, zeitgeist movie about the effects of the technology revolution on the American bourgeoisie, is nothing if not ambitious.
Following the opening shot, the camera zooms in on a satellite – it’s the Voyager, we’re told by Emma Thompson’s voice – carrying an interstellar telegram with an archive of salient terrestrial information – recordings of a human heartbeat, the whistling of the wind through an oak tree, the whooshing of the ocean, the sound of a kiss – which were curated by Carl Sagan. We’re told the satellite exited our solar system in 2013, when this movie is set, capturing one final shot before its egress: a photo of Earth among its celestial neighbors, Earth as no more than a speck, or a “Pale Blue Dot.”
That Pale Blue Dot and the Voyager serve as metaphors and motifs throughout MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, set in Texan suburbia, revolving around the lives of high school sophomores and their parents, glued to their phones and computers, disconnected from each other.
The star runningback (Ansel Elgort) of the football team, whose mother’s abscondance to California has led him down a path of melancholia and MMORPG gaming on his laptop, is the only exponent of the “Pale Blue Dot,” telling a girl to whom he’s secretly attracted that “cosmically – nothing matters.” That girl, whose Luddite mother (Jennifer Garner) reads her daughter’s texts and online activity and tracks her daughter’s whereabouts through a form of LoJack, confesses to him that she has a Tumblr account, to which her mother is not privy, where she can truly express herself.
The rest of the parents are not so alarmed about the Internet, but are likewise affected when they pry into their children’s online activity. An ordinary dad (Adam Sandler), whose lukewarm marriage is underscored by his wife’s forays onto Ashley Madison, a private dating site, uses his son’s computer to watch pornography, is saddened that the Internet has automated his paternal function of introducing his son to that stuff. His son has been watching Internet porn since the age of ten, and cannot achieve an erection IRL (Internet speak for “in real life”) when a cheerleader/aspiring actress from his grade offers sex. That cheerleader’s mother (Judy Greer) dolefully snaps photos of her scantily clad daughter, selling them on the Internet. Meanwhile, another cheerleader, desperate to win over a jock, restricts herself, turning to online chat groups for anorexics that suggest “smelling a cupcake while eating broccoli.”
This year, movies like CHEF, FRANK, and SEX TAPE have incorporated social media to propel their plots. Building on his UP IN THE AIR, which explored the role of technology in corporate culture, Reitman’s MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN showcases the embeddedness of cell phones more than any other movie, visually integrating text messaging et al. Sometimes bordering on farce, Reitman’s vision is ultimately prosaic, mirroring the iLifestyle as it is today.We should not mistake it, however, for a diatribe against technology, or as a panegyric in favor of it. Although the movie ends on a slightly prescriptive note, it does so with the goal of offering something transcending.
Its beauty is its constant change of perspective, ultimately telescoping into outer space to offer the perspective we need most regarding our personal lives.The subtlety and intensity of the human experience in this film sends a message that we need to be kinder, more patient, and find better communication skills with each other…IRL.
Carrie White is the best-selling author of Upper Cut: Highlights of My Hollywood Life. She tweets @carriewhitehair.
Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer. Follow him @PaparazziPorn.