“Troubled Teens & Clueless Parents” might have made a more honest title for Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children,” a carefully diagrammed thesis movie about The Way We Live Now — specifically, how our attachments to the virtual world are destroying our relationships and turning us into a race of fame-obsessed, porn-addicted e-zombies. Unfolding as a series of loosely connected cautionary tales on the perils of excessive phone, Internet and social-media use, this painfully well-meaning but largely unpersuasive bid for cross-generational understanding feels at once of-the-moment and too obvious by half, like a less overblown version of “Crash” for the information superhighway. Relatability often being a more reliable conversation-starter than quality, the film’s universally applicable message, savvy packaging and excellent cast could inspire audiences to log on to the Oct. 17 Paramount release.
It’s one of the unintended ironies of Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson’s script (adapted from Chad Kultgen’s novel of the same name) that their entirely plausible theory of contemporary American behavior — namely, that our various screens and smartphones are keeping us from really getting to know one another — can’t help but ring faintly hollow in a film that never digs too deeply beneath the surface of its characters and their neatly apportioned, Web-exacerbated personal issues. Injecting a note of clinical detachment at the outset is Emma Thompson’s loftily bemused voiceover, commenting on the cosmic insignificance of the human race over shots of the Voyager spacecraft, before zeroing in on planet Earth and introducing us to Don (Adam Sandler), an average American suburbanite stuck in an increasingly dull and sexless marriage with Helen (Rosemarie DeWitt).
Don uses online porn to ease the tension, but he’s an amateur in that department compared with his 15-year-old son, Chris (Travis Tope), whose insatiable appetite for ever more extreme forms of hardcore smut has left him incapable of experiencing sexual arousal by non-technological means. Chris carries on a steady sexting conversation with classmate Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), an attractive, sexually precocious teen bent on pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles — a goal she’s aided in somewhat too eagerly by her failed-actress mother, Donna (Judy Greer), who thinks nothing of pimping out her daughter on a modeling website, complete with private gallery of inappropriately suggestive photos.
At the far opposite extreme is Patricia (Jennifer Garner), a fanatically overprotective mom who spends hours worrying what the Internet might do to her daughter, Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), monitoring every kilobyte of the poor girl’s data plan and every innocuous exchange between her device and someone else’s. Naturally, Brandy turns out to be the most thoughtful and well-adjusted teenager onscreen (we even see her reading a book!), drawing the romantic interest of the otherwise existentially gloomy Tim (Ansel Elgort), a former football star who now spends hours immersed in the virtual gaming world, to the chagrin of his recently divorced father, Kent (Dean Norris, “Breaking Bad”).
In a way that recalls Henry-Alex Rubin’s similar-themed “Disconnect” (2012), “Men, Women & Children” slowly develops these stories and ties them together in ways meant to inspire awkward, rueful laughter, as when Don and Helen find themselves betraying each other on the same night — him via a high-priced escort service, her through a dating website that implores its users to “have an affair.” (Helen’s blind date is played by Dennis Haysbert, introducing a lone note of racial diversity in a film that perceives Internet addiction as a primarily white, middle-class issue.) Mainly, though, the filmmakers seem to want us to shake our heads at the screen in collective self-recognition as several of the characters are sent lurching toward tragedy — particularly in the case of anorexic teen Allison (Elena Kampouris), whose fixation on her body, fueled by an online community of fellow self-starvers, combines with her sexual naivete to particularly toxic effect.
The picture that emerges means to be at once diagnostic and empathetic — to simultaneously scold its characters and pat them on the shoulder as they gradually realize the full extent of their isolation and their need for authentic human connection. The vibe established is both admonitory and soothing; the ever-present synth accompaniment by composer Bibio and various soft-rock tunes take on the faux-consoling ambience of hospital music. One by one these teens grapple with the full complement of sexual, body-image and personal-boundary issues, while their parents realize the folly of both excessive leniency and excessive paranoia. All will learn the potentially devastating consequences of impulsively hitting “wipe” or “delete.”
It could have been worse — mercifully, we’re spared the sort of fatal texting-while-driving climax to which a more melodramatically amped-up film might have resorted. But the relative subtlety of Reitman’s approach has its drawbacks, too, especially when applied to this sort of overdetermined story framework. Unsure whether to enfold its characters in a warm embrace or to fillet them in a Todd Solondz-style indictment of suburban anomie (the director certainly has it in him, judging by the misanthropic comedy of arguably his best film, “Young Adult”), “Men, Women & Children” settles for a reaction that feels noncommittal, insincere and curiously anesthetized: Watching it is like getting a hug from someone sheathed in plastic, fearful of emotional contamination. The multiple-narrative structure accommodates this hesitant approach; whenever a particular interaction gets too probing or uncomfortable, there’s always someone or something else to cut away to.
There isn’t a weak link among the actors, some of whom seem to be striving to do more within their tightly circumscribed character outlines — to suggest that these people might be more than the sum of their online indiscretions. Garner, often typecast in high-strung roles, does her best to keep Patricia from coming off as a total pill; Greer leavens her irresponsible stage mom with welcome notes of level-headed self-awareness; and Sandler demonstrates what a fine, natural actor he can be in a tamped-down, realistic context. If anything, the teenage thesps are even more impressive, affecting in their lack of affectation. Following his mannered, divisive turn in “The Fault in Our Stars,” Elgort conveys real, searching pain as a moodier, more laconic teen here, and he and Dever (so good in “Short Term 12”), enacting one of the movie’s few healthy, emotionally grounded relationships, are among the easier thesps to latch onto here.
The high-school hallways and suburban homes feel thoroughly, authentically ordinary as devised by production designer Bruce Curtis (the film was shot in Austin) and lensed with unshowy finesse by d.p. Eric Steelberg. But the standout tech contribution may the swift, smoothly incorporated pop-up graphics that fill us in on the characters’ digital chatter; from texts and tweets to Facebook messages, it all feels smart, alert and up-to-the-minute. Remarkably, given the film’s evocation of a world that would do well to unplug every now and then, several viewers still felt compelled to pull out their phones and text their way through the Toronto press screening attended; simplistic and on-the-nose though “Men, Women & Children” may be, it’s rather appalling to realize that there are still some moviegoers who won’t get the message.