By Josh Dickey2014-09-07 02:14:46 UTC

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TORONTO — If Men, Women & Children had stuck to what it does best — examining the deadening, dehumanizing impact of social media on our lives, and our sex lives in particular — it might have been a great film, the defining study of an inflection point between two generations: one that was forced to adapt to the internet, and one that is growing up on it.

To assign a writer/director to that task, you could simply do no better than Jason Reitman, who at age 36 is caught in between those generations, and possesses all the tools to tackle the topic with humanity, humor and intellect. At many points along the way, he does.

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In fact Men, Women & Children gets that part so right that it hurts: To see its ensemble cast — which is stellar across the board, by the way, led by Adam Sandler, Judy Greer and Ansel Elgort — fumbling through life with smartphones and online flirting and pervasive porn puts any of us at risk of seeing ourselves in the ghastly light of a bathroom-mirror selfie. No one escapes examination here, so if you are squeamish about whatever skeletons are hiding in your browser history, this might not be the movie for you.

Still, Reitman is mostly humane to his characters, who are so numerous and varied that you’ve to to tip your hat; not even the late, great Robert Altman could keep this many plates spinning without losing one of the threads. There are well over a dozen principal characters living life in a high school football-obsessed suburb of Austin, Texas, and most of them get their moment.

The problem is that these moments represent widely divergent themes, some to do with our connectivity addiction, but others with teen girl body-image issues, bullying, depression, divorce, shameless self-promotion, extreme helicopter parenting, infidelity, life, the universe, and everything. Literally the cosmos, and by that I mean Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

A scene from Paramount Pictures’ “Men, Women & Children.”

Image: Paramount

Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt, in the mundane late-to-middle stages of marriage, separately turn to an escort service and a popular infidelity site while their teen son struggles to have real sex after looking at too much porn; Greer and her saucy cheerleading daughter are in cahoots on making her an internet celebrity, which backfires when her real shot at fame comes; Elgort (much more sullen that he was in The Fault in Our Stars) quits football to devote more time to his MMORPG; and Jennifer Garner goes to laughable extremes to “protect” her otherwise fairly level-headed daughter from perceived online dangers.

That only describes about half of the themes at play here, and those are the most relevant ones.

Much of the story is told through the kind of onscreen pop-up text messages we’re used to seeing by now (thanks, House of Cards), Facebook posts (but never a mention of Twitter, interestingly enough, as that’s Reitman’s platform of choice). But there are real human interactions, too — mostly via the grownups, who still stand face-to-face to ask each other on dinner dates, unlike the teens, who stand 25 feet apart, backs turned, while sending each other text messages.

The cracks in Men, Women & Children start to form in the third act, as Reitman attempts to weave all of these notions into Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” manifesto, as if to tell us that our cosmic insignificance is somehow significant to the breakdown of our human interactions. Exactly how these thing connect isn’t exactly clear, but Emma Thompson is reading the voiceover, so it must be meaningful, right?

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There is a profound sadness to Men, Women & Children, despite that its characters, for the most part, settle out their personal dramas to some satisfactory end. Moreso the adults — they still remember that sex can end sweetly, with a head laid gently upon a lover’s chest, or that a shared meal can be the best place to unload our troubles upon another person, while at the same time taking theirs upon ourselves.

Surely these aren’t the first two generations to be divided by some form of technology, but there does seem to be a special significance to what the internet means to human existence, so who knows? Maybe Reitman’s attempt to contextualize this moment will prove somehow prescient.

Will today’s teen boys struggle with intimacy after the pornography wave? Does the internet fuel girls’ body issues, inject poisonous paranoia into parents, create hyper-narcissism within our most ambitious children? Is Generation X the last of a dying species, who remembers what it’s like to be tactile beings in a material world? Reitman deftly raises these questions, but then casts them into the abyss of space, and the result, for now, is more obfuscation than illumination.

Or maybe there are two movies here. One for the pre-internet generation, a pedestal from which to look down on millennials and wonder how their humanity will ever survive the internet; and another for those millennials, who wonder how their elders ever got along without it.

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Image: Paramount