The movie tells the interwoven tales of close to a dozen suburban parents and high-schoolers, united by the common themes of sex, alienation, and the Internet—a kind of techno-misanthropic Love Actually. Try to follow along as best you can. Don (Adam Sandler) and Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a married couple deep in the sexual doldrums: He cruises porn on their son’s computer, his own having become irretrievably infected with malware; she and he will both pursue extramarital dalliances online—her, through the cheating site Ashley Madison, him via an escort service. Their son, Chris (Travis Tope), is also addicted to Internet porn, to such a degree that he is unable to respond sexually to the aggressive advances of vixen-y sophomore cheerleader Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). Hannah is herself an aspiring actress whose single mother, Joan (Judy Greer), is promoting the girl's career—and pocketing some cash on the side—by publishing racy “private photo sessions” of Hannah for pervy subscribers to her website. Joan becomes involved with Kent (Dean Norris), a father whose wife abandoned him to run off to California with another man.
Still with me? Deep breath:
Kent’s son, Tim (Ansel Elgort), reeling from his parents’ breakup, has quit his starring role on the football team, withdrawn into his room, and devoted his waking hours to the online fantasy game Guild Wars. Tim’s only real-life connection is a tentative quasi-romance with classmate Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose paranoid helicopter mom, Patricia (Jennifer Garner) monitors her every virtual interaction—phone, email, Facebook, browser history—with a line-crossing avidity befitting the director of the NSA. Rounding out the digital horror show is the virginal Allison (Elena Kampouris), an anorexic who gets nutrition tips from a site called www.prettybitchesnevereat.com and who desperately wants to hook up with a jock so telegraphically sleazy that he might as well have “sex offender” sewn across his varsity jacket. Finally, we have J. K. Simmons, who makes a token appearance as Allison’s dad, his only meaningful function being to reprise his Juno role as the Dad Who Finds Out His Underage Daughter Got Pregnant. I genuinely do not comprehend this final casting touch. It has the shape of an inside joke but—and I probably don’t need to point this out—it isn’t funny.
Reitman has claimed that Men, Women & Children is not about the impact of technology, but I hope the summary above captures why I’m inclined to believe my own lying eyes. That said, there’s no reason why a movie exploring these themes couldn’t succeed, if it were only to treat its subject matter with more subtlety than a chimp handling American Tourister luggage. It’s a hurdle that Reitman’s film resolutely declines to clear.
Take the relationship between the Sandler and DeWitt characters. Although one of the most fully fleshed-out of Reitman’s many scenarios, it remains shallow and under-motivated. The film takes pains to note that their sex life was dynamic enough that, as young parents, they were getting it on “before work” when the planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11—a detail equal parts tasteless and improbable. Now, by contrast, they almost never have sex and when they do, “perfunctory” would be a charitable description. What has happened to their marriage to drive them both to technology-assisted infidelity? The only answer the movie offers is an implicit one: technology itself. In a scene that otherwise serves no clear purpose, we watch as the unhappily married couple lie next to each other in bed, both on their iPads. Maybe this scene would make narrative sense if they were both chatting or texting (see? even when they’re together, they’d rather be talking with someone else). Instead, he’s reading and she’s playing a word game. Replace the iPads with a book and a newspaper, and you have what for decades has been shorthand for marital bliss: lazing together with a novel and a crossword. Damned iPads!