Overview: Several people’s lives are destroyed by the evils of the Personal Computer. Paramount Pictures; 2014; Rated R; 119 Minutes
E-fer Madness: Men, Women & Children is the kind of melodramatic panic attack that I thought had been killed by the rise of irony. Perhaps the most insane thing about it is that multiple real people (or “RL people” as Ansel Elgort’s character helpfully informs us) apparently thought it was worth making. Men, Women & Children is a blaring klaxon of a film; it’s desperate to warn people about the dangers of modern living but it fails to illustrate anything other than its own obnoxiousness. Its overqualified ensemble cast is used entirely as mouthpieces and props for writer/director Jason Reitman’s chapter of The Book of Virtues. Reitman knows all about societal ills, and he can blame each and every one of them on computers. Marital infidelity? The Internet makes it happen. Depression? Video games enable it. Anorexia? It’s those darn websites. Erectile dysfunction? Internet porn is to blame, obviously. Selfies? Jennifer Garner’s character has a pamphlet about their dangers. Actual problems with society that spring from the Internet, like copyright infringement and piracy, or theft and distribution of personal data, or anonymous death and rape threats? Well, maybe they’re saving those for the sequel.
Cosmic Scale: In a pathetic bid for profundity, the film uses the Voyager I probe as a framing device and frequently references Carl Sagan’s famous “Pale Blue Dot” speech. This, along with Emma Thompson’s dryly sarcastic narration, suggests that none of what we’re watching ultimately matters, though I suspect the intent was to add some gravitas to the proceedings. Elgort’s character talks about how nothing matters over and over again, and he brings up Sagan and “Pale Blue Dot” a couple times too, but the film doesn’t portray that viewpoint as “correct” whenever he says it. Men, Women & Children is nothing if not confused, and it constantly contradicts its own themes and messages.
Its biggest hypocrisy comes from the Garner character. We’re initially meant to laugh at her extreme anti-Internet rhetoric, until the film says “No but seriously guys” and proceeds to confirm all her worst fears. Just when the incompatible thematic threads start to become apparent, the film just cuts away to some pretty shots of space and starts talking about Carl Sagan to distract you. When Thompson starts reciting “Pale Blue Dot” over a montage of the various characters crying and reconciling, the film finally hits rock-bottom, just in time for the credits to roll. It’s like a child’s abstract conception of a “meaningful” movie, relying entirely on the audience not being smart enough to realize that it’s all bullshit. It’s an affront to the intelligence of anyone watching it, and it’s the worst film I’ve seen in a theater all year.
Wrap-Up: Men, Women & Children would be laughably abysmal if it aired on Lifetime, but the big screen makes it seem even more pretentious, overblown, and nonsensical.