The Voyager I satellite, we’re told early on in Men, Women & Children, hangs in space, equidistant from the earth and the sun.
Launched in 1977, it holds a Golden Record of greetings in 57 human languages, musical excerpts and animal song. Curated by American astronomer Carl Sagan, the recording is designed as an introduction for extraterrestrials to Earth. Sagan originally wanted to include a picture of a naked man and women on the record. Nasa told him outlines would suffice.
That kind of all-American prudery gets a ribbing in Jason Reitman’s sixth feature, an adaptation of Chad Kultgen’s novel about sex and secrecy in the online age. It’s a film about miscommunication between parents and kids and the intergenerational confusion stirred up by the advent of the internet. It’s fragmented and frustrating, ambitious and forthright, attacking our tendency to confuse sex and intimacy, worrying at relationships starved of actual, physical contact.
Adam Sandler plays Don Truby, a horny, bored suburban dad. Once happy and lusty, he and his wife, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), now spend more time pawing their iPads than each other. Their 15-year-old son, Chris (Travis Tope) is addicted to online porn. He’s incapable of having “vanilla” sex with his girlfriend, Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia). She’s encouraged by her mum to pose in swimwear for photos that are sold on her fansite. Down the road is Tim (Ansel Elgort), a former star quarterback and Sagan nut who’s given up football to spend his hours raiding dungeons in the online video game Guild Wars. His girlfriend, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) is subjected to regular virtual stop and searches by her paranoid mum (Jennifer Garner), who has access to her browser history, but is yet to discover Brandy’s secret, sensual online alter ego.
It’s all tied together with shots of Voyager making its way through the cosmos and a stupendously fruity voiceover by Emma Thompson, who narrates. Don bunks off work to watch a video called “Titty-Fucked Cum Queen”. Thompson teases the title out in her finest RP. You can practically hear her wink.
A huge improvement on the muddled melodrama of Labor Day, Men, Women and Children is still a flawed Jason Reitman film. It’s scope is too big, his ambitions too high. He attempts to encompass monogamy as a fallacy, the lure of cheap celebrity and the indelible nature of your online history into a black comedy-drama in the vein of Sam Mendes’s American Beauty. But he’s too sentimental to follow the source material’s ideas through. Kultgen’s novel tackled sex explicitly. Reitman’s film has parental controls on. It attempts to discuss sex and intimacy in an era when the two are commonly confused, but it does so with a chasteness to match the Twilight movies. Perhaps he’s taking the Nasa route. Perhaps he’s satirising it. It’s never clear.
He’s not the most subtle of directors. The level-headed teens read Mark Twain from good ol’ good-for-you books. An anorexic girl’s parents fail to notice the cutouts of rake-thin models plastered all over her wall. Don’s wife embarks on an affair, so Reitman plays Hall and Oates’s She’s Gone on the soundtrack. The character arcs bubble and bump in a flood of information. We’re told that Don’s constant logging on to tug off has left him unable to form his own thoughts. “The sheer quantity and variety of the internet had left his brain useless,” says Emma. You can start to relate.
Reitman rises to the challenge of showing the internet on film admirably, but in a film so reliant on communication via screen, it’s hard not to make smartphone tropes look hokey. Text messages pop up on screen, URL bars slide across the top and chat windows fade in and out of view. The technique – used to much less interesting effect by Jon Favreau in Chef earlier this year – is as unobtrusive as a giant box of text appearing above an actor’s head can be. It also ensures that Men, Women and Children will be obsolete within a generation. It’s hard to imagine that’s Reitman’s design.
Like much of Reitman’s work Men, Women and Children is clever, but in love with its cleverness. It’s knowing, without having all the answers. There’s something about the director’s tendency to work a laugh that grates, something about his attitude to “ordinary” people that alienates.
As Voyager spins on through the universe, grubby, normal people blunder on through their lives. Reitman’s tethered loosely to the audience’s good will. He could lose us any moment. He shoots for the moon, he tumbles back down.
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