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JASON REITMAN ATTEMPTS TO CRACK THE MODERN INTERNET CODE

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Rating: R, Grade: D+

I was going to begin by saying that we live in fear, with a degree of uncertainty, concerning the modern world and the tools at our disposal. But the truth of the matter is we have no sense of fear or anxiety about the Internet or social media because we are all too busy being caught up in the spell these instruments weave right before our eyes. Every minute of every day, we surrender a bit more of ourselves, our humanity, to the virtual.

We sit at tables with others, ostensibly to share meals and conversation, but we are barely present in these moments. Each one of us travels, through our devices, across time and space, to inhabit other scenes, sometimes several other scenes at once, bantering in broken English (the new global language will soon be known as “auto-correct”) and selfies that we send without thought. We are forgetting how to interact and communicate in face-to-face exchanges. “Face time” has a whole new meaning, and even the newer iteration of it, the modern application, if you will, has the feeling of being obsolete. We don’t want or desire to see faces, actual moving faces that offer emotions for us to read and interpret. Body language is about to be as dead as Latin.

But, let me be clear, we have no fear of these changes. Not at all.

So, it is interesting to watch the ensemble cast of Jason Reitman’s latest film – “Men, Women & Children” (which had a muted screening at the Toronto International Film Festival) – as they struggle to navigate the treacherous waters of the new age, this land without fear. This is because Reitman, working from Chad Kultgen’s novel (Reitman co-wrote the script with Erin Cressida Wilson), works under the assumption that there is still much to fear and that we are still somewhat aware of the dangers. What he gives is a collection of characters, isolated in their individual bubbles, floating along, sometimes bouncing lightly off one another, occasionally bursting upon impact. Yet, in their fragile membranes, they sense the world is slipping away from their control.

Patricia Beltmeyer (Jennifer Garner) fights the good fight. This over-protective mother vigilantly patrols the Internet borders, ever ready to stamp out threats to her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) – a typical teenager with nimble fingers, but who also possesses a willingness to unplug and engage with inhabitants of the real world. It’s just too bad most of her peers are virtual zombies wandering around the social media landscape that Brandy’s mother so desperately wants to keep at bay.

One day, Brandy meets Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), the former high school football hero who walked away from gridiron glory for something a bit more authentic, something no one else seems able to comprehend. At night, Tim retreats into the online gaming world to escape a sad family situation, but he makes an initial effort to socialize at a school lunch table and connects with Brandy.

Maybe there’s a chance the kids will be all right. If only the adults would take notice and learn a thing or two. But, instead, we get Helen Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt) and hubby Don (Adam Sandler) sleepwalking through their marriage until they each tap into online fantasies that they call forth into the real world with disastrous results. There are other adult characters here, making horrible choices and setting equally horrendous examples for their children, all the while offering up reflections for us.

Reitman is the one who is afraid of what we have become. The problem for him is that somehow the director with sharp, jaded wit he displayed in earlier films like “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” has settled into the sentimentalist who most recently gave us the emotionally belabored “Men, Women & Children,” which wallowed in the kind of soap melodrama that has disappeared from daytime television for a reason. “Men, Women & Children” follows that path, although it is unlikely that audiences will be suckered down it … because they won’t take the time to glance away from their virtual lives. And, in this case, that’s a good thing.