'Men, Women & Children:' Terrifying social media tale

Tom Long
The Detroit News

What if there was a way for our own worst instincts to be exponentially amplified, to offer the dark side of the human psyche terrible purchase?

There are, of course, plenty of such options. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, we have nuclear weapons, chemical poisons, semi-automatic firearms and all manner of terror-inducing instruments.

But take it down to the personal. What if there was a way to anonymously bully someone? How about a way to hide behind the curtain while egging on a suicide or a mass killing? What if, with a few short keystrokes, a husband could cheat on his wife or a wife on her husband?

Imagine a world in which lies could be spread without consequence, where a slight slice of celebrity awaited anyone willing to bare flesh, where reality could be abandoned for never-ending fantasy.

This is, obviously, the world we already live in, and the thoroughly frightening film "Men, Women & Children" is the first movie to face these realities face-on. Not piecemeal, not from the outside with cool detachment, but with some sense of scope and shame and horror.

It is the year's scariest film simply because it's the year's most realistic: Welcome to your nightmare. Director Jason Reitman ("Juno," "Up in the Air") has adapted Chad Kultgen's novel with Erin Cressida Wilson to devastating effect, creating a work that's near impossible to ignore.

Reitman employs a large ensemble cast here, and pretty much everyone shines (although it will be criminal if Rosemarie DeWitt doesn't get a supporting actress nomination). In a completely effective approach, Reitman runs through a litany of traditional human failings and tracks how they blow up, thanks to assorted social media.

The traditional stage mom? That would be Joan Clint (Judy Greer), a cheerful gal who's taken to posting photos of her more-than-willing cheerleader daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) online for a select group of subscribers. Fellow cheerleader Allison (Elena Kampouris) wants to keep losing weight, so she turns to an anorexic support group filled with anonymous people who encourage her not to eat.

Don and Helen Truby (a somber Adam Sandler and DeWitt) have lost all the spark in their marriage, so they each arrange assignations online. Meanwhile, their teen son (Travis Tope) has become so hopelessly entangled in web porn that he's lost touch with his own body.

Standing center in all this and much more are Brandy Beltmeyer (Kaitlyn Dever) and Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), each of whom come with problems while still trying desperately to cling to RL (Real Life, as if it's a computer option). Brandy is hounded by her overprotective (but is she paranoid?) mother (Jennifer Garner), and football star Tim has quit the team to lose himself in online fantasy games. They make for a touching, albeit shaky, island in the storm.

Reitman frames the film with a bit of too-much-knowledge cosmic musing from narrator Emma Thompson, but even that contributes to understanding the jittery state of the modern mind. In the face of such magnificent insignificance, why care?

The bond between Brandy and Tim offers the only good reason. Is it enough in a world this messed up?

Put down your damn phone, lift your chin and consider — is it?

TLong@detroitnews.com

'Men, Women & Children'

GRADE: A

Rated R for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout (some involving teens) and for language

Running time: 119 minutes