Digital disaster sends a message
Men, Women & Children (M) Limited release IT’S not often we hear Emma Thompson mouthing obscenities in a movie. Can this be the Thompson we know and love, the one with the refined English accent who wowed us in Sense and Sensibility and played the formidable Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited? Emma talking dirty? It’s as if Julie Bishop had suddenly come out with the F-word while addressing the UN Security Council. As the unseen narrator in Jason Reitman’s
Thompson gives us more than a quota of dirty talk. She rounds the film off with some portentous observations on the immensity of the universe and humanity’s insignificant place in the scheme of things. And like much else in the film, her words are accompanied by shots of starry skies, wandering spacecraft and distant galaxies. Yes, we get the picture. Men, Women & Children is a film with a serious message.
Sam Goldwyn once famously said: “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” Hollywood studios have been wary of message movies ever since. Reitman’s film, by my count, delivers not one message but three — the dehumanising power of cyber-technology, the breakdown of personal relationships in a world of increasing isolation, and the destructive proliferation of extreme pornography. It’s possible that Men, Women & Children is the first disaster movie tailored to 21st-century concerns.
The threat to humanity doesn’t come from a rogue virus, a plague of zombies, a freak nuclear accident or the ravages of global warming. The monster that threatens our lives is the internet, that vast global web of shared knowledge and instant communication that no one actually owns and no government can entirely control. As Reitman would have it, the internet is here to stay — and we’d better get used to it.
That’s some message. And judging from first reactions to the film, it’s not a message audiences want to hear. Critics everywhere have savaged Reitman’s picture. So emphatic was the initial rejection in the US that the film was pulled from cinemas within a week of its release last month. And it’s not hard to see why. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a film so sad, so unrelievedly humourless, so utterly dispiriting. It’s as if Reitman, remembered for warmly diverting entertainments such as Juno and the coolly sat- irical Thank You for Smoking, found himself overwhelmed by his own dire ideas.
I have no problem with films in which the main characters drift through pointless and unhappy lives. That’s nothing new. The Italian neorealists and the auteurs of the French new wave built their reputations on portraying rootless characters. Michelangelo Antonioni specialised in affluent types who had lost the power to communicate; Sam Mendes tackled similar themes to Reitman’s in American Beauty, and