If you didn’t get the message in last year’s Disconnect, director Jason Reitman is here to remind you again that the Internet is A Very Bad Thing. We cannot emphasize that enough. Your children are probably watching German fetish porn as you read this. (Or worse, you’re watching it yourself.) Parents are clueless: either too permissive or overprotective. Teens are meanwhile intoxicated by the online stew of sex, bullying, friending, betrayal, shaming, and “thinspiration” (yes, it’s a thing; look it up). If their parents only knew what was on their phones and computers, they’d be shocked; and this is the kind of literal-minded movie that will inevitably bring them to that revelation.
Reitman, who tends to rise (Up in the Air, Juno) or fall (Labor Day) with his source material, is here adapting a recent novel by Chad Kultgen, which is nothing if not topical. When Reitman films the high-school scenes, animated bubbles fill the cafeteria with emoticons, texts, IMs, and viral videos. No one looks up from their phones save for outcast Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), whose nose is generally in a book (eew). Drawn to her is ex-jock turned video-gamer Tim (Ansel Elgort), now also a pariah for quitting the football team. (This is Texas, though not so well-wrought as Friday Night Lights.) There’s also a mean-girl cheerleader and her innocent protege plus the porn-addict son of an apathetic couple (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) whose marriage is falling apart by mutual consent.
Almost none of these teens are capable of having actual conversations, and their parents aren’t much more articulate. Partly to solve this problem, though it paradoxically makes the characters seem all the more dumbly typical, is the omniscient Oxbridge narration of Emma Thompson. The contrast is amusingly jarring as she catalogs various porn fetishes (“Titty fucking cum queen… ”) and charts the progress of the Voyager spacecraft beyond our galaxy, which makes all human problems seem terribly, terribly small. (Tim turns out to be a major Carl Sagan fan; if we’re all insignificant atoms, he tells Brandy, “I find that comforting.”)
But are these problems—extending to teen pregnancy, parental adultery, and suicide attempts—large or small? Is the movie exaggerating or normalizing suburban pathologies? And is technology really to blame? Reitman can’t seem to decide. His shallow movie illustrates a lot of anxieties in the culture right now, but without any bite or insight. (Kultgen is no Tom Perotta.) With so many players in the ensemble, including Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer, the movie never settles on any core drama. Nothing happens for the first hour, and everything that happens next is easy to guess. So is it the kids, parents, or filmmakers today who can’t concentrate on a single topic? Men, Women & Children keeps its thumb pressed to the remote, ever searching for the next shameful situation. All of which leads me to the last thing I ever thought I’d hear myself saying about a movie: More Adam Sandler, please. Opens Fri., Oct. 17 at Sundance and other theaters. Rated R. 116 minutes.