Most of what I’ve read about this movie reduces its thesis to a couple simple binaries. Is the movie pro-technology or anti-technology? Is the Internet bad or good? Are we better or worse off for living our lives the way we do, that is, through the “alienating” filter of screens, social networks, and 160-character blurbs. Critics have pegged Men, Women, and Children directed by Jason Reitman as “alarmist,” and as an “unsophisticated,” “blind panic” to The Way We Live Now. Here I plan to offer up a far less ad hominem interpretation.
I’ll just come right out and say that first of all I liked the movie. But that isn’t why I am writing this. What provoked me to write this analysis in the first place is mainly my critique of the critics but also what I really think the movie is about that no one else mentioned.
It would take several hundred words for me to ecologically explain all of the worlds and sub-worlds that the film constructs. But you’ll get a glimpse into a few of them while I attempt to prove my point, with the help of a complex philosophical system created by Jean Baudrillard, that this movie isn’t a reactionary “tornado of bullshit,” but that it reveals and comments on the loss of reality that afflicts us today. Baudrillard calls this hallucinatory phenomenon “hyper-reality,” where the world becomes less worldly and more like digitized prisons without any referential point anchored in the real.
But first, to address the main criticism, I don’t think this movie can be reduced to either pro or anti-technology. I’ll go even further to say that the either/or dichotomy is pretty much useless in itself because the world that we live in is always beyond either/or. When are our choices as human beings that neatly isolated and reducible? As for the movie, the worlds created and the people inhabiting them are quite realistic and to ignore this virtue to make petty but clever attacks at a director is cheap and serves to only abstract the content of the film to suit the reviewers glee in written combat.
For a dose of the real world being supplanted by a fake world, which is a realism, take the world of a sophomore in high school (Allison) who has an eating disorder disguised as a “diet,” who also happens to also be lusting for your typical jagoff-jock high school football player who told her that she is “a real piece” now that she is skinny. So do you remember how important your room was to you in high school? The effort you put forth to make your room yours? All four of Allison’s walls contain pictures cut out of magazines exposing skeleton-skinny models. What we forget when looking through magazines is that the images of these models are exotic, digitized renderings of bodies taken apart and put back together again to look a certain way, a way that is, by and large, unreal for the human species—transcending reality.
This is her world, one of false and unachievable images, and note that out of all the subplots in the movie this one has the least to do with texting blurbs that some critics couldn’t look past. In regards to technology, the young girl with anorexia does seek affirmation, validation, and also “help” in the form of an online support-system as to how to keep her starvation on track when her father offers up her favorite, shepherd’s pie, where she is then advised through the others in the chat-room to smell the savory pie while eating celery. Her world is not fantastically embellished and I picked up on zero “blind panic.” It is a real illness, especially prevalent in young women. Right now, in America, over half of teenage girls use unhealthy weight control behaviors like skipping meals, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, or laxatives. Maybe this phenomenon among young women deserves some type of “alarmist” reaction but Reitman approached it with tact and care. Watching this teenager starve herself to become a man’s object of desire, while idolizing media-hallucinated images of “skinny,” was brutal mainly because of its truth.
I saw the hyper-real logic in its strongest form while watching the struggle of a 15 year old who was so attuned to masturbating on the Internet, with tastes that “deviate far outside cultural norms,” where the Real Thing (intimacy and sex with a peer) became impossible. What happened to him was that the digitally rendered images, fetishized utopic fantasies, which are not merely harmless productions, have replaced his reality. The result of this transplantation has made real life dull and unlivable, much like the result of the idealized skinny body we saw Allison chasing and starving after. The 15 year-old ends up sexually frustrated, unable to get it up for anything that isn’t a fantastically hardcore, sexually erotic production.
The film’s tone and effect, at times, undermine the movie, mainly the cold and detached “darkly comic” narrations, but it is not one depressing vignette after another, and another and another. There are beautiful moments of human intimacy, especially between existentially alienated ex-football star (Tim) and the young woman (Brandy) whose mother is a suffocating, cyber-policing control freak. Despite the ex-football player’s cosmic pessimism, that if he disappeared tomorrow it wouldn’t make a difference, he finds his connection with Brandy meaningful and one of the only things that, for him, isn’t pointless. This is a highly complex and mature relationship for two high school sophomores to be navigating and they do it with grace. It ought to be noted that part of what led the football star to think this way (Cosmically) was viewing old Carl Sagan programs on YouTube, an overlooked positive note on the internet that many critics of the film dismissed as unbalanced: that it portrays the internet as a vapid black hole of malware and porn. The world would be a better place if more high school football players had the ability to think this way.
Which goes back to the films irreducible thesis, that it isn’t the preaching of a Luddite, that it isn’t holding up a cross to social media, sexting, or the Internetification of our lives. I did not see any anti-this or anti-that agenda being communicated. After watching the movie twice I stand firm that it is in fact a comment on reality, or lack thereof, and that “nature” has been supplanted by media saturation, computer generated images, sexually brewed utopias and an exploited public that will pursue fame, fads and trends, to the gates of insanity and despair.