We begin with the Voyager I floating serenely in space, as Emma Thompson’s impeccable British accent explains the Voyager’s mission to explore the mysteries of space. Why? Who knows. Even as the credits roll for Men, Women and Children, the latest film from Jason Reitman, the reason behind the constant shots from space looking back at the Earth is confusing. He seems to be trying to draw a connection between the vast mysteries of the universe and the vastness of the Internet. Maybe. Another possible explanation is that he’s making the point that humans used to reach for the stars and now they reach for their phones. Either way, whatever Reitman is trying to get to is a stretch. And he won’t let it go. This is a shame because when he forgets about space and focuses on Earth, the film is solid.
The core of the film is built around small stories about living in our wired world. There’s the girl who frequents an anorexia chat room so the boy she likes will notice her; the star of the football team who quits after his mom leaves him and only communicates through Facebook; a married couple who can no longer connect, so they turn to online dating and escorts; the head cheerleader who is so desperate to be famous that she posts photographs of herself in her underwear on her website; a mother who is so terrified of what’s on the internet that she tracks her daughter’s every virtual move. There is no new territory to be found here, but it’s hard to fault the execution. These are people who could easily be a neighbour or a friend, but even in a world of constant status updates, we are less informed than ever. The performances are all solid. This is some of the best work that Adam Sandler has done in ages, likewise for Jenifer Garner. Unfortunately, Reitman spends too much time on the gimmicks. Screens float over people’s heads as they walk and texts constantly appear on screen. While I can appreciate the difficulty of communicating written dialogue on screen, in this film it comes across as a bit lazy. And we keep returning to the Voyager spacecraft.
Therein lies the biggest fault of Men, Women and Children—it’s trying create something on a cosmic scale, when what’s important is the small things. The football player talks about the theory that nothing matters because our atoms are recycled after we die and become something new, but he’s wrong. It’s because life is so fleeting and fragile that the little things do matter. Reitman gets this, or at least his previous films indicate that he does. Even parts of Men, Women and Children hit on this point. That’s what it’s about: Men and Women and Children. People trying to figure life out when supposedly, everything we could ever want to know is at our fingertips 24/7. It doesn’t matter if we are unimportant on a cosmic scale, because we aren’t living on a cosmic scale. When the film realizes that and focuses on the small moments of interpersonal interactions and relationships, on inner struggles and demons, that’s when it works. Unfortunately, it keeps forgetting the point, which makes the film both confusing and a little bit tedious.