Jason Reitman's Men, Women and Children boasts an impressive ensemble cast including Jennifer Garner, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, and new Hollywood heartthrob Ansel Elgort, but the best scene of the movie goes to, who else, but Judy Greer.
"Oh, and I'm going to put a seven-digit security code on my daughter's vagina."
Here, Greer mocks Garner's character Patricia, and her obsessive cataloguing of her daughter's (Kaitlyn Dever's Brandy, in an impressive turn) social media presence, and cell phone activity. But Patricia's actions and overprotective cyberstalking of her daughter are also emblematic of Reitman's in-your-face message: that too much technology can present a danger to love, intimacy and relationships at any age.
However, his thesis is too exaggerated, and no character in the film acts with any level of moderation. Adapted from Chad Kultgen's 2011 novel of the same name, a willowy teen (Elena Kampouris) visits a pro-ana tumblr, and immediately starves herself on a "Biggest Loser-like diet" to gain the attention of the school hottie. A married couple in a slump (Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt) — who seemingly only communicate through games of Words with Friends — watch an Ashley Madison commercial and each pursue their own affairs online. Their teenage son, 15, has been watching explicit pornography on the Internet for five years, and now no longer has the desire to kiss his crush. Football prodigy Tim (Ansel Elgort) abandons his budding sports career to immerse himself in a knock-off World of Warcraft game, and finds out about his runaway mother's new engagement on Facebook, but, naturally, not before she blocks him. Meanwhile, Brandy rebels against her mom's keystroke-viewing with a cosplay alter ego, just because. Oh, and Judy Greer takes provocative photos of her 16-year-old daughter, and puts them on a private subscription-only website, to boost her acting resume. Plus, in this universe, cyberbullying is all around us.
Exhausted yet? Don't be. Reitman may be overzealous in his approach, but the film's anti-technology message tells viewers to communicate with their mouths and hearts instead of their thumbs. At a TIFF press conference, prior to the world premiere, he also revealed there was a social media ban on-set to foster more of a community amongst the actors.
But, on-screen, the best and most compelling relationship was between Elgort's Tim and Dever's Brandy, who manage to text, and send Facebook and Tumblr messages to communicate, but still meet in person, hold hands, eat lunch together and are there for each other, because.. young love.
Throughout the film, text messages, Facebook conversations and more appear as pop ups on the big screen. Cartoony, sure, but there are some well done performances in this overstated piece, particularly from Elgort — a rising star with only three other movies under his belt: the 2013 shot-in-Toronto Carrie remake, and the one-two punch of Shailene Woodley in Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars. Tormented by both the loss of his mother (she moved across the country), and his former football teammates, all Elgort is looking for is a connection that lasts, be it from his online gaming guild, or fellow outcast, Brandy.
In spite of its flaws, the movie is effective, and gets you to put down the phone, if only for a minute. At the film's premiere, Sandler was relaxed as usual, and had a similar takeaway from the film. Though Garner called the film’s modern representations of communication "horrifying" at the press conference, on the red carpet, she was beaming, proud of her efforts. During junket interviews, she said she couldn't wait to watch the movie with her husband, the Batfleck himself, to see what he thinks about love in the social media age.
As for Reitman, his latest will not be as big of a critical or commercial hit as the trifecta of Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, or his criminally-underappreciated masterpiece, Young Adult. But, this provocative cautionary tale does mark a partial return to form after his hostage thriller Labor Day came and went, leaving him with no more pie, or peach cobbler, on his face.