“Men, Women & Children,” Reviewed: Control, Alt and (Especially) Delete.

Kaitlyn Dever and Jennifer Garner in "Men, Women & Children." (Paramount)

Kaitlyn Dever and Jennifer Garner in “Men, Women & Children.” (Paramount)

Is it too soon to stage an intervention for Jason Reitman? The director started off strong a decade ago, choosing smart projects (Thank You For Smoking, Juno) and executing with deft precision. Young Adult and Up in the Air connected more with critics than audiences, but last year’s Labor Day was an unqualified dud – maudlin, predictable tripe that wasted abundant talent on both sides of the camera. Now with Men, Women & Children (rated R) he’s veered even further off course – not just off the highway, but past the dirt road and full on into a cornfield. He’s created an alarmist cautionary tale for the Internet Age with all the subtlety and nuance of one of those Very Special Episodes of your favorite TV sitcom.

Based on the 2011 novel by Chad Kultgen, Men, Women & Children looks at the pervasive technology habits in use at a number of households in Austin, Texas:

  • A unhappily married couple (Adam Sandler and RoseMarie DeWitt) have more in common than they think, as she discovers a website devoted to facilitating adulterous hookups just as he begins using an online escort service. Meanwhile, dad has ruined his own computer with too many viruses from searching porn sites, and is reduced to using his son’s PC when no one’s home.
  • A single mom (Judy Greer) feeds her teenage daughter’s (Olivia Crocicchia) craving for future reality-show stardom by helping her develop a promotional website featuring modeling shots that veer into softcore images.
  • The high school’s star quarterback (Ansel Elgort) quits the team in the wake of his mother abandoning him and his dad (Dean Norris), and now spends his free time with online role-playing games and mumbling about how no one would miss him if he were gone.
  • An overprotective mom (Jennifer Garner), absolutely freaked out by the corruptive potential of modern technology, uses every digital tool at her disposal to monitor the online movements of her daughter (Kaitlyn Dever), while hosting a local support group to warn other parents.
  • Meanwhile, for no discernible reason, the disembodied voice of Emma Thompson narrates the saga, while occasionally ruminating on the interstellar travels of the Voyager spacecraft and comparing that journey to Sandler’s search for a good porn site.

By rights, Sandler’s presence ought to be the most worrisome element among those descriptions; but he’s not bad in a role that requires him to underplay to his more dynamic spouse. Garner, uncomfortably at home in the role of a harridan, never gives us a glimpse of what might have propelled her character into such an alarmist status quo. Norris and Greer make momentary sparks in a flirtatious subplot that begins at one of Garner’s support-group meetings, but they’re ultimately unexplored and uninteresting. Of the teens, only newcomer Crocicchia offers a real spark of authenticity as a high-school opportunist who uses casual sex as a form of social networking.

One of the risks of a sprawling narrative is that no story will be developed enough to be interesting; that happens pretty consistently here, as any one of these families might have produced a meaty enough story to hold our attention for 90 minutes. As is, the script spreads everyone too thin, while never attempting to explore the bigger questions about our obsession with technological connectivity that might show us something we haven’t seen before.

Through it all, Reitman treats his story with a degree of solemnity usually reserved for writings found on stone tablets. He seems to think he’s discovered a new idea here, but any parent – heck, any person – who’s ever regretted spending time online will watch this film and think, “Well, obviously.” I can’t imagine that’s the reaction he was going for, but it’s all he’s going to get. Men, Women & Children might convince you to unplug, all right – from the films of Jason Reitman.