Social Media Takes Starring Role in Toronto Movies

Hollywood is notoriously phobic of technology — many A-list actors and directors routinely admitted how infrequently they check their email– but this year’s Toronto Film Festival suggests that Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media are starting to land supporting roles at the movies. In “St. Vincent,” the Weinstein Co.’s upcoming comedy starring Bill Murray, a struggling mom (Melissa McCarthy) asks her son (Jaeden Lieberher) how she knows that his father cheated on her. He shoots back that it was her Facebook status update, a joke that landed an eruption of laughs at he film’s premiere on Saturday night.

Call it the “Her” effect. In 2013, the Spike Jonze drama about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system, served as a commentary on the way in which all modern interactions are now shaped by technology. That theme resurfaced this year at Toronto. Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young” and Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” both included so much texting and tweeting, it will probably make theater-goers anxious about ignoring their own gadgets.

It’s a welcome change from even a few years ago, when Hollywood rarely seemed to acknowledge that the people who filled multiplexes were frequently checking their phones. “The Social Network,” which opened in 2010, appeared to have been written by someone who didn’t use Facebook. For a long time, Hollywood portrayed the Internet as the dark and cryptic force that trapped Sandra Bullock in 1995’s “The Net.” When Lena Dunham uses her iPhone to ping her Brooklyn whereabouts to some friends in an early episode of “Girls,” the scene is jarring, because that’s not how fictional characters usually communicate.

But those kinds of exchanges are becoming more common. In “Men, Women & Children.” Reitman extends the canvas of his screen so that as the characters surf the Web or text, their words appear in the film like one of those scrolling breaking news alerts on CNN. This device is especially effective during a scene set at a mall, where dozens of thought bubbles explode at once, to illustrate the point that even if a group of people are in the same place, they’re all really somewhere else. Reitman has a high school girl sending sexually explicit messages to her crush, while her mom walks at her side, completely oblivious.

The dependence on the Internet for sex is one of the reoccurring motifs the film, which is broken up into a series of vignettes. As the story opens, we see a middle-aged dad (Adam Sandler) who sneaks into his son’s room to surf YouPorn.com. But instead of using the computer, he becomes nostalgic for the porno magazines that he used to stash away as a teenager. (Emma Thompson is the voice of the narrator in the film, and her erudite cadence is meant to contrast with frantic blobs of online communication.)

If most of the characters in “Men, Women & Children” are prisoners of technology, the uptight mom played by Jennifer Garner might as well be the voice of old Hollywood. She is so suspicious, she’s constantly scouring her daughter’s Facebook page and computer for signs of inappropriate conduct. She even holds a neighborhood watch meeting to discuss the “dangers of selfies.” But it’s hard to tell what Reitman is trying to send up: for all the use of technology, the characters are still preoccupied with old-school issues like infidelity, body image and depression.

On the other hand, “While We’re Young” is a gentler indictment of social media, offering up a more avuncular form of disapproval. The film centers on a 40ish couple (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) who become enamored of pair of twenty-something Brooklyn hipsters (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Much of the attraction is that theirs is an analog life, one with videotapes, cassettes and records, while Stiller and Watts have become too consumed with a bourgeoise attachment to their iPads, iPods and Netflix subscriptions — a point brought home in an extended montage documenting their deviating media consumption patterns.

The aspiring filmmaker played by Driver, at one point, is utterly dismissive of Facebook, to which Stiller responds, “It helps you connect and there’s photos,” all but confirming its status as a digital coffeehouse for the aging. As Watts marvels, part of their appeal is that they are caught up “with all the stuff we threw away.” In the process, the attraction of this young couple seems more spontaneous and solid than Stiller and Watts’ marriage — though all is not as it seems. The film’s final image of Watts and Stiller looking on as a toddler plays with an iPhone complicates the picture and seems to confirm that these devices have become too firmly enmeshed in our DNA to ever completely escape.

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