Movie review: "Men, Women & Children" wags its crotchety fingers over newfangled internet

Melissa Starker, Columbus Alive

When the drug scare film-turned-cult classic "Reefer Madness" was first released in 1936, it debuted under a different title: "Tell Your Children." The content may have been salacious for its time, but the intent was purportedly to warn parents of a new threat to the innocence of their offspring.

Co-writer-director Jason Reitman has a similar message to share with his new film, "Men, Women & Children," but the way it comes across isn't fun or memorable like the tale of hopped-up teens from the '30s.

Fixed on the depersonalizing effects of the worldwide web, the movie brings together a large ensemble of interconnected, suburban kids and parents to display a range of the worst the internet age has to offer.

There's Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), a high schooler whose every keystroke is tracked by her obsessively overprotective mother (Jennifer Garner), and Tim (Ansel Elgort), the football player who leaves the team and retreats to online gaming after his mother leaves his father (Dean Norris). Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia), a cheerleader and aspiring actress, has amassed a following with a website full of suggestive pictures of herself, while her squad mate, Allison (Elena Kampouris), spends her online time in pro-anorexia chat rooms.

Among the adults are Don (Adam Sandler) and his wife, Helen (Rosemarie Dewitt), who each use the internet to find the intimate connection they've lost in their marriage, and Hannah's mother, Donna (Judy Greer), who believes she's helping her daughter's burgeoning career by selling scantily clad shots of her to strange men online.

The movie takes off when genuine connections are made, as in the offline relationship that develops between Brandy and Tim, but those are rare. More often, we're left to watch the questionable actions of characters who instill no feeling of connection. Virtually all of them are half-baked or frosted with cliché.

Narration by Emma Thompson connects their stories to the launching of the Voyager mission and the big-picture, we're-just-a-speck-in-the-universe perspective of Carl Sagan's famous "Pale Blue Dot" speech. It also betrays the inflated sense of self-importance fueling Reitman's efforts. Given this and the film's general, finger-wagging tone, you can't help but wonder, when did the 30-something filmmaker behind "Juno" become so damn crotchety?

"Men, Women & Children"

Opens Friday

2 stars