Part of cinema’s job is to reflect the world back to us so we can examine how we live now, and maybe ponder it for a while, or at least until the end credits. To sum up this day and age (and yes, by using a phrase like that we’re admitting ours), you can’t ignore the part in our lives now played by the internet. Which a bunch of directors have done of late, with varying degrees of success.
Jon Favreau’s Chef from last summer was ostensibly about Carl, a high-flying chef who has a meltdown and learns to love cooking again by running a food truck. But the subplot revolved around the chef and his young son bonding as the latter taught the former to embrace social media (Carl’s wig-out was fuelled by a Twitter screw-up). Though commendable, it was hard not to feel a frisson of embarrassment at lines such as, “You’re trending, bro!”
David Fincher fared better with Gone Girl, referring only obliquely to “they” to describe the baying masses who, presumably via social media, were voicing their opinions on whether or not Ben Affleck’s character had done in his missus. Perhaps Fincher realised that even the very utterance of the word “Twitter” in a serious film that isn’t actually about the internet (like his 2010 movie The Social Network) has a deflating, bathetic effect – like catching Noam Chomsky reading Metro.
Latest to try is Jason Reitman, the funny, intelligent writer-director behind funny, intelligent films like Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air. Unfortunately with Men, Women & Children, his new comedy-drama, he has, though not entirely and hopefully temporarily, lost his knack for wry observation and yup, the web is to blame. The film is certainly about how we live now: in isolated bubbles, where we can communicate with more people more of the time but form connections that are less meaningful if not actively dishonest. There’s Adam Sandler as a schlubby dad who googles a date with an online escort. There’s a misguided mum (Judy Greer), who makes a web page of sexy photos of her teen daughter to secure her Hollywood fame. There’s a cheerleader who hits “thinspiration” sites to encourage her eating disorder. There’s Jennifer Garner as a mother so terrified of the World Wide Web she performs a nightly purge of her daughter’s Facebook feed and mobile phone. And there are young lovers kept apart by her tyranny, with possibly fatal results.
The message of the film seems to be the internet is bad. But it can also sometimes be good. Every plot line functions as a parable for one of the nefarious, headline-grabbing uses to which the internet can be put, and certain characters are little more than storyline-enabling ciphers. There are still moments of Reitman’s trademark droll wit: Sandler’s character bonds with his teenage son in absentia by masturbating to his offspring’s choice of online porn. Not quite taking him to his first ball game (though balls are, of course, involved). But for now, Hollywood directors are still struggling to feature the internet in a way that doesn’t scream “Look! It’s the future!” or rather, “Look! I’m old!” The search continues.
Men, Women & Children is out on 5 December