It takes an awful lot of effort to say almost nothing in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children, a film that’s so busy making profound statements that it eventually forgets what it’s talking about. It has all of the obvious importance of a Mike Nichols movie but none of the playful insight to back it up. It’s a grim slog with only one message: that white suburbanites are just as miserable as they have always been, but now they also have the internet.
Men, Women and Children is a pastiche of stories set in a non-descript Texas town, and all of them have the unmistakable, judgmental, emotionally and socially exploitative air of a Lifetime Original Movie or After School Special. There’s the kid who watches so much pornography that he’s incapable of achieving an erection from real intercourse. There’s the supportive mother whose daughter’s demo reel website is indistinguishable from child pornography. There’s the sexless married couple who have affairs with people they meet on the internet. There’s the mother who micromanages her daughter’s internet and phone privileges. And you’d better believe there’s an anorexic teenager and an unwanted pregnancy in here too.
But the thing about Lifetime Original Movies and After School Specials is that they are always honest about their intentions, and consistent with their condescensions. Their messaging is clear, and laser-focused on audiences who already agree with everything being said. Their value, both sincere and ironic, is exploitative and often very enjoyable. But by shoving a half dozen of these trashy, manipulative storylines into a single film and goosing them with lovely cinematography, classy actors and a ponderous, joyless score, Jason Reitman has produced a film that strives instead for Importance, and fails on every level. You just can’t make a five-star meal with 99 Cent Store ingredients.
Middle-class malaise has been the subject of so many other movies that it behooves any filmmaker tackling the genre to try something new. So Jason Reitman’s gimmick is that he visualizes everyone’s social media interactions using CGI pop-up bubbles without actually cutting away to anyone’s screen. Crowds of people mill around a mall with text message conversations hovering over their heads like green diamonds in a Sims game. But despite the omnipresence of this visual gag his film says nothing meaningful about our connection with technology, or the way it impacts our interactions with each other. All of the subplots in Men, Women and Children – with maybe one exception – would have been equally valid in the days before the internet.
So what are we to make of this, the fact that Reitman’s only addition to the Middle-Class Malaise subgenre is an emphasis on technology that contributes nothing to his other themes, other than confusing mixed messages? Married couples cheated on each other before the internet. Teenagers have always sought out excuses to ignore their parents. Eating disorders predate Tumblr and the history of overprotective mothers probably goes back as far the Paleolithic Era. Some characters ruin their lives with the internet while others use it to interact healthily with each other and improve their miserable existence.
The only conclusion to make from the fumbling, albeit well-acted and technically proficient Men, Women and Children is that nothing has changed and that nothing ever will. That might have even been poignant if Jason Reitman’s film had bothered providing a little bit of context, but it’s so obviously centered on the impact the internet has had on suburban life that it seems to have overlooked the fact that, according to the events that transpire in Men, Women and Children, it has evidently had almost no impact at all. The only point to be gleaned is that watching Men, Women and Children is utterly pointless. The kids are all right. The internet is all right. It’s this dreary, futile, meandering movie that sucks the life out of everything.