The probe carries a gold-pated audio-visual disc in the event it’s ever found by intelligent life forms. This disc carries photos and sounds of life on Earth including Mozart and Chuck Barry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Jason Reitman makes Voyager the first moving object you see in his new film “Men, Women & Children.” Initially he is making a point about the overwhelming insignificance of humankind in a vast universe, in a narration spoken by Emma Thompson, but he is also tipping his hand that perhaps he sees his film as a time capsule of its own.
For here in a single film is a snapshot of how we live our lives circa 2014. In the technology-dominated digital age with its instant-messaging — with its texts, Tweets, Tumbl, Facebook, social media sites and fame chasing — communications has, ironically, become more difficult.
We’re connected — but to what? It’s possible to walk right by a person you’re texting and not even notice.
Reitman’s film, based on Chad Kultgen’s 2011 salacious, soap-opera-ish novel, cooly charts the struggles of a group of high school students and their parents in navigating this brave new tech world. The evidence here suggest everyone is more challenged than he or she realizes.
It’s a visually complex film with its screen cluttered with text messages and web sites as people wander through an Austin, Texas school campus, malls, streets and offices staring down at smart phones or tablets. Pop-up bubbles show what people are texting or reading. Yet the film takes no moral position on any of this.
This is where we are, Reitman seems to be saying, with enormous social changes that have taken place in little more than a decade. The tragedy of 9/11, equal to that of November 22, 1963 or December 7, 1941, becomes a kind of divide as emphasized by a class project where kids interview older folks about what they were doing when that happened.
We’re all now on the other side of that demarcation, staring at our computer screens or watching video games, preferring to text than to talk.
The movie is an ensemble piece blending actors known and unknown seamlessly and guided thoughtfully by Reitman, who collaborates with Erin Cressida Wilson on the screen adaptation. The Thompson narration fills in back stories, provides context and guides your understanding of the significance of matters on Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot,” meaning Earth.
Don (a bearded and slouchy Adam Sandler) and his wife Helen (Rosemary DeWitt, looking worn out) have fallen into the doldrums. The relationship has stagnated with Don finding sexual release in Internet porn and then a “date” with a prostitute hook-up found online while Helen seeks her “Secretluvur” (Dennis Haysbert) on a site match-up for extramarital affairs.
Patricia (a severe looking Jennifer Garner), an anti-Internet parent, so rigorously monitors every online key stroke by her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) that the poor youngster can’t live a normal life. Which she grudgingly accepts until she meets a boy she cares about,Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort).
Emotionally devastated when his mother abandoned the family to pursue another man in California, Tim, a high school football star, has quit the team and spends most of his time playing an elaborate video game.
His own life in turmoil, Tim’s father Kent (Dean Norris) isn’t in a place where he can help his son; he thinks the only solution is to get back on the gridiron.
Having flamed out in Hollywood herself years before, Donna (perky Judy Greer) lives through her cheerleader daughter Hannah (a caffeinated Olivia Crocicchia). She has set up a site to further her daughter’s ambitions to become a celebrity, taking and posting more and more risqué pictures.
She is unaware that her daughter feels part of fame-chasing is boasting via texting every sexual thought or action she has or takes. Determined to make her fantasy of freewheeling sexuality a reality, she latches onto Don and Helen’s boy, Chris (Travis Tope).
Like his dad he’s an expert in porn — veering toward the non-conventional kind — yet still a virgin, a bad combination it turns out when Hannah attempts a hook-up. The real thing does’t live up to the porn images.
When Donna and Kent meet at one of Patricia’s PATI meetings — Parents Against the Internet — they spark to one another and tentatively start dating.
Meanwhile an insecure student, Allison (Elena Kampouris), rarely eating food in an effort to become as thin as possible and visiting a site that encourages such a disorder, asks a long-time crush to deflower her — to devastating results.
The many story lines criss-cross and fuse at points, then culminate perhaps a little too neatly with stark realizations all around. This is a tale that Cameron Crowe, Amy Heckerling or John Hughes told several times a quarter century ago only without the aid/obstruction/confusion of technology.
While using it all the time, parents are wary of tech’s impact on their children and in a couple of instances make disastrously bad decisions in the name of vigilance.
For the young, using technology is like breathing air; this nonchalance covers up the many of the challenges, known and unknown, an attachment to “devises” carry. They have never lived in a world where one doesn’t rely on devices for connectivity.
There is a crucial, curious difference between Reitman’s film and those of Crowe, Heckerling and Hughes though. Some of those films are now timeless. I don’t know if “Men, Women & Children,” which is a good film, will achieve that status.
With its sharp focus so on the now, it might seem dated in less than a decade. However, Reitman is one of our keenest social observers. He has managed to capture the zeitgeist in enough films to date. Who knows? The film may be prophetic in ways we cannot imagine or maybe even hip in anticipation of the future.
While no cautionary tale — he’s too smart a mainstream filmmaker for that — “Men, Women & Children” makes you wonder if we all don’t need to take breathers from our devices.
Opens: October 1, 2014 (Paramount Pictures)
Production company: Paramount and Chocolate Milk Pictures present a Right of Way Films production
Cast: Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Emma Thompson (narrator), Dennis Haysbert, J.K. Simmons, Timothee Chalamet, Olivia Crocicchia, Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, Katherine Hughes, Elena Kampouris, Will Peltz, Travis Tope, David Denman
Director: Jason Reitman
Screenwriters: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson
Based on the novel by: Chad Kultgen
Producers: Jason Reitman, Helen Estabrook
Executive producers: Michael Beugg, Mason Novick
Director of photography: Eric Steelberg
Production designer: Bruce Curtis
Costume designer: Leah Katznelson
Editor: Dana E. Glauberman
R rating, 119 minutes