I sat down next to a know-it-all couple before this morning’s press and industry screening of Jason Reitman‘s Men, Women & Children. Late 40s, early 50s. A bit aloof and snooty, but I can roll with that. They either knew everything or were curious about everything…chattering away and vibrating with the spirit of journalistic engagement. When I heard her talk about Birdman I asked if she’d seen it locally, and she said she’d just come back from the Venice Film Festival. “Oh.” Anyway, around the hour mark they abandoned the Reitman film. They bolted, scrammed, ducked out like thieves. I’m presuming it wasn’t because one of them had a doctor’s appointment and the other wanted to offer comfort.

Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children.

I stayed but I’m afraid I agree. After the collapse of Labor Day Reitman needed at least a critical hit, but Men, Women & Children ain’t it. It probably won’t be much of a commercial hit either. It’s an evils-of-the-internet movie…the absorption, the screens, the banality, the sense of drifting, the absence of vitality…except it reflects the banality too well. Is is what it’s lamenting. It’s a relatively empty flick about several distracted, lazy, delusional people sitting around texting each other and talking selfies and surfing porn sites. New title: “Screens, Texts & Aridity of Existence.”

Your empty, passive life is reflected in your empty, passive texting and contemplation of screens, screens and more screens. Is that all there is, Peggy Lee?

M,W & C is similar to two superior films: George Lucas‘s THX 1138 (screens, screens and more screens, a life devoid of anything but data and performance anxiety) and Henry Alex Rubin‘s Disconnect, which opened and fizzled about 16 months ago. But I liked it (“Disconnect Is April Surprise”). It’s about the same subject (everyone’s online, kids in their own realm, parents don’t get it) but it’s far, far better than Reitman’s version. More engaging, better written, has more of a pulse. And Jason Bateman gives a near-great performance as a semi-absentee dad who succumbs to guilt and springs into action to help his son during Act Three.

“There are 40 or 50 ways this movie could have blown it or gotten it wrong in some way, and time after time it gets it right,” I wrote about Disconnect. “I was sitting there in my seat going ‘okay, that worked…that was good…no problem with that one…yup, that was good…solid delivery’…and it just kept going like that. Don’t listen to Variety‘s Guy Lodge — he was in a pissy mood or something. I realize this is a social-concern drama about everyone being out of touch with themselves and those closest to them due to cyber absorption and yaddah yaddah, and I know that sounds like a bit of a groaner but it’s not, trust me.

Disconnect works because it delivers in the writing, direction and acting. Andrew Stern‘s screenplay feels credible and compelling and is very finely threaded, always pushed along by believable turns and real-seeming characters behaving in what they believe are their best interests. Rubin’s direction is unforced naturalism par excellence, and the result is a story that always feel right and steady-on-the-tracks — nothing ever feels like a stretch (except perhaps that one moment at the very end when slow-mo kicks in). And the performances are honestly inhabited and true-feeling and just about perfectly rendered.

Jason Bateman is so good as a somewhat distracted and over-worked but essentially decent dad that he is hereby forgiven for having costarred in Identity Thief and as far as I’m concerned has earned himself a ‘get out of jail’ pass for the next two or three years. Also planted and persuasive are Andrea Riseborough as a go-getter TV news reporter, Max Thieriot as a kid who performs on a sex website, Frank Grillo as an ex-cop who works as a cyber security expert, Colin Ford as a kid who, along with a heartless pal, deceives and humiliates a fellow student, Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgard as marrieds coping with the death of a child but more precisely identity and financial theft, fashion tycoon Marc Jacobs as a sex-site exploiter, Hope Davis as Bateman’s wife and the mother of Ford’s victim and so on.”