Say what you want about the snappy, almost too-polished films of Jason Reitman, they've never struck a tone of alarmism. Even when the crisis was unexpected pregnancy ('Juno'), economic freefall ('Up in the Air') or home invasion in the form of swarthy escaped convict Josh Brolin ('Labor Day'), there was always a cool-headed pragmatism on display, sometimes at the risk of seeming too glib.
That can't be claimed anymore with the arrival of the ominous and panicky 'Men, Women and Children', the first Reitman film to make the 36-year-old director seem about 400 years old. An ensemble-acted shriek on the topic of Internet and social-media overconsumption, the Texas-set drama is adapted from a worrymaking novel by Chad Kultgen. It's exactly the wrong match for Reitman and co-screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson ('Secretary'), whose mutual instincts for light-touch theatrics somehow amplify the material's wailing siren of a thesis: turn off those devices now.
After Emma Thompson smugly narrates an intro involving the Voyager space probe (in case you didn't get it, we're all miniscule in the scale of the cosmos), we meet a thoroughly hopeless group of Austin parents and teens. Don (Adam Sandler) is a dad nursing a raging online porn addiction; his bored wife, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), strays to dating sites. Local high-schoolers Tim (Ansel Elgort), Allison (Elena Kampouris) and boldly sexual Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) grapple with their own obsessions: virtual gaming, instant-messaging-encouraged anorexia and password-protected 'modelling', respectively.
Swivelling between these strands and others with a diffidence that begins to feel obnoxious (often, the actors have text bubbles floating over their heads), Reitman creates an antitech 'Babel' of little analytic merit. It's not that these problems aren't serious ones, only that his modern-day 'Reefer Madness' isn't the film to start the discussion.
Sensitive acting goes part of the way toward tolerability, particularly Elgort's ex-football player, sunken into parental abandonment, and his library-visiting girlfriend, played by gentle Kaitlyn Dever ('Short Term 12'). But a ferociously judgmental mum (Jennifer Garner, poorly directed into caricature) who monitors all her daughter's transmissions feels closer to the overall spirit here. Unfairly, she becomes the film's last-minute villain – as if the whole thing didn't bathe you in cynicism.