It's a fact of life now that we spend most of our waking hours in Screenland, staring at glowing electronic rectangles of varying sizes, accessing information and people instead of experiencing them. Where this will lead, no one knows, but there is a good amount of concern up and down the line, from coolly ironic to hysterical hand-wringing. Hollywood movies on the subject tend to the latter, which makes sense, since Hollywood movies are generally made by older people, and older people remember what life was like before Screenland while being less adept at moving through the electronosphere. Whether they're the best people to be telling us about it is another matter.
"Men, Women & Children" is the latest warning siren, more nuanced than last year's "Disconnect" and much less artful than Spike Jonze's "Her." It's one of those multi-character morality plays — think "American Beauty" meets "Crash" — and it will play especially well to freaked-out parents, even as it distances itself from them by acknowledging that the kids (most of them, anyway) are all right.
In fact, there are two Demon Moms here, one for each end of the paranoia-to-enablement spectrum. Patricia (Jennifer Garner) is so terrified of releasing her teenage daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever of TV's "Last Man Standing") into the wild that she monitors every one of the kid's computer keystrokes while checking her texts and tracking her movements by cellphone. A few blocks over in their Texas town, single mom Joan (Judy Greer) is intent on making a star out of her cheerleader daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), to the point of maintaining the girl's website and pimping her out for "private" modeling shoots.
That's hardly the only thing wrong in this wired Peyton Place. Bored married couple Don (Adam Sandler, in phlegmatic serious mode) and Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt, excellent as always) have compartmentalized their long-term drift into secretive iCheating: He's trolling for escort services while she has signed up at adultery site Ashley Madison (which gets major product placement here and, ironically, will probably see an uptick in business as a result). An early sequence intercutting between Don and Helen separately filling out online sex questionnaires is a moment of queasy comedy, and it points to the fine and truly uncomfortable farce this movie could have been.
If so, Jason Reitman would be the director to make it. The old Reitman, that is — the one who gave us "Thank You for Smoking," "Juno," "Up in the Air," and his high water mark, the lacerating "Young Adult." Lately, though, Reitman has opted for maturity: Last year's "Labor Day" was a glutinous romance and "Men, Women & Children" — which he adapted with Erin Cressida Wilson from Chad Kultgen's 2011 novel — is just the sort of Important Drama he used to be good at satirizing.
To his credit, Reitman leavens the pronouncements with subtler touches, and he gets strong performances from the adolescent members of the cast. But the moments in "Men, Women & Children" that are supposed to sting — like the malls and high school hallways filled with text-bubbles over everyone's heads as they walk obliviously past each other — are already a visual cliche. The movie's at its strongest when it gets into the nitty-gritty of how younger people move through Screenland, with fluid assurance and a connectivity that can be supportive, cruel, empowering, or ruinous.
Thus Brandy has a secret Tumblr account that serves as her online diary, despite her mother's lockdown; thus Tim (Ansel Elgort), a brooding hunk who has quit the football team because "football doesn't matter anymore" and whose mother has abandoned his father (Dean Norris) for a new boyfriend in LA, finds solace in the trash-talking but caring friendships of an online gaming universe. These two are the secret heroes of "Men, Women & Children," an updated James Dean and Natalie Wood who find each other IRL — that's "in real life," the script breathlessly and datedly informs us — while their schoolmates are falling off the edge of the digital map, where be monsters.
Those secondary characters are talking points, mostly, even as the movie captures the way high school students use texting as subterranean running commentary to reality, pitched at a frequency parents and teachers don't hear. Hannah is the movie's equivalent to Mena Suvari's cheerleader in "American Beauty" — the All-American teen sexpot who's less knowing than she seems — and her squad-mate Allison (Elena Kampouris) is a secret starver who trolls pro-ana websites (Google it, mom) and throws herself at a callous football bro (Will Peltz).
A much more pointed subplot concerns Don and Helen's older son Chris (Travis Tope), an online porn adept since the age of 11 who, at 15, has accessed such depths of kink that he's a walking paradox — a virginal libertine — with no idea of what intimacy with an actual girl might entail. This is a ripe and necessary area for our culture to address: The boys (and girls) who have seen everything people can do while understanding nothing about what people are. And it may be that filmmakers who have come of age in Screenland will be the best equipped to deal with it — like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose excellent, too-little-seen "Don Jon" (2013) covers this territory without ever talking down to its audience.
On the other hand, Reitman is only three years older than Gordon-Levitt, so maybe that doesn't wash. But the younger director knows enough to let his movie speak in the voice of its knuckleheaded hero, whereas "Men, Women & Children" veers fatally in the direction of pomposity whenever the God-like narration of Emma Thompson fills the soundtrack, yanking us into outer space to watch the Voyager spacecraft pass Saturn — I'm not making this up — while trying to jump-start an awareness of our cosmic insignificance.
That's the movie at its worst — that and the climactic "Crash"-ings that tie up the subplots in bullet-points for your post-screening discussion group. "Men, Women & Children" only seems daring when it hints at a rarely admitted kink we all share — the need for secrecy and solitude, for private daydreams that help convince us we matter — and explores how our glowing screens enable us to pursue them in ways that simultaneously liberate and chain us to our fantasies.
Someone should make a movie about that. But it won't be Jason Reitman. And you'll probably be watching it on your cellphone.