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Men, Women & Children

October 10, 2014
Men, Women & Children

I’m not sure if I was born at just the right time or just the wrong time for Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. I’m too old to be a “digital native” millenial, but I’m younger than the solid Gen-Xers I used to help with installing software. I’ve grown up with computers and “devices”, but I clearly remember the time before they proliferated. The thing is, so is Reitman. But where I’m relatively comfortable on both sides, he seems distinctly uncomfortable with technology, or at least he’s comfortable with pandering to those who are.

The film traces a number of stories playing out within a handful of families in one Texas town. Chris Truby (Travis Trope) is burned out on internet pornography before so much as kissing a real girl. His father, Don (Adam Sandler), has slightly more moderate habits, but is heading towards hiring an escort to replace the sex he’s not having with his wife, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). She’s not happy either, but she’s looking more in the direction of Ashley Madison, the infamous dating site specifically geared towards those seeking to have affairs.

Chris harbors a crush — probably along with most other boys at the school — on Hannah Clint (Olivia Crocicchia). She wants to be an actress; her mother, Donna (Judy Greer), didn’t quite make it. Hannah sees her beauty as key to her future career, and Donna helps blur the distinction between beauty and sexuality by helping set up a “modeling” website featuring galleries of pictures of Hannah in provocative outfits and poses that stay just this side of legal.

One of Hannah’s friends, Allison Doss (Elena Kampouris), has also confounded sexuality and the extremes of her appearance. She developed a crush on an older boy who disparaged her weight, which nudged her towards anorexia. The internet was more than helpful in supplying her with the “pro-Ana” and “thinspiration” sites and forums she uses to reinforce her eating disorder.

Tim Mooney’s (Ansel Elgort) problems, for once, aren’t sexual. His mother ran off with another man, and he’s having a bit of an existential crisis. He quit the football team — pretty much the only common ground he had with his father, Kent (Dean Norris) — and got really into World of Warcraft instead.

And Tim gets interested in Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever). Unfortunately her mother, Patricia (Jennifer Garner), has gone into a full-blown panic over the internet and put Brandy on electronic lockdown. Of course, Brandy is desperate to express herself and establish her own identity, just like all the other kids she knows, so she’s left with a secret tumblr account she accesses with a second SIM card for her phone.

Men, Women & Children isn’t quite so fear-mongery as Disconnect — there is no white slavery ring involved here, for instance — but it’s still incredibly nervous about our relationship with the internet. Both films are concerned with the irony that for all the ways the characters connect through technology, they’re all still isolated and lonely. But they miss the fundamental point that isolation and loneliness far predate the internet. Technology is just a convenient bugbear for, let’s face it, old people who are scared of change and want to place all the blame for all the world’s problems on something they refuse to understand.

Kent gets angry when he sees Tim’s guild-mates’ trash talk, as if high school football players don’t say the exact same things. Sure, cyber-bullying is a problem, but Tim is more hurt by losing his community than by some immature ribbing they dish out.

Donna’s stage mothering is highly inappropriate, but again this is nothing new. We just saw, in The Last of Robin Hood, how Florence Aadland allowed and encouraged her underaged daughter Beverly into a full-on sexual affair with Errol Flynn in order to advance her career. And that was in the late 1950s, long before the internet was a gleam in some DARPA administrator’s eye.

Don and Rachel’s marriage is in trouble, but it’s hardly the case that nobody ever hired prostitutes or had extramarital affairs before the internet. All the internet does is lower the cost and increase the speed of communication, just like it does everywhere else. This may well change the dynamics, but these two would have been headed towards a divorce just the same.

In fact, the only truly destructive internet-based phenomenon we see is the echo chamber that Allison falls into. Eating disorders, too, existed before the internet, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that communities devoted to “Ana and Mia” really began to thrive. Even the fetish communities that Chris obsesses over have their place, providing a healthy outlet for adults who share unconventional interests that might keep them isolated and ashamed without being able to communicate on a global scale.

The internet is not an unmitigated good, but it’s not nearly the evil that Reitman still tries to paint. It’s merely a tool that enables and simplifies communication, for good or ill. Yes, sometimes this exacerbates problems, but it doesn’t cause them; we were lonely long before the internet.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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