Just like every year, 2014 had its share of notable movies tackling significant social and political issues, from Selma’s exploration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s still-relevant quest for equal rights to Citizenfour’s chronicling of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing on U.S. government surveillance. But judging solely by the amount of times any one topic appeared in the movies last year, Hollywood’s most pressing concern isn’t race relations, American foreign policy, economic inequality, or the loss of individual liberty. Hollywood’s greatest bogeyman is that mean ol’ Internet. Forget terrorists: YouTube and social media are the true enemies of our way of life.
Repeatedly, storytellers in 2014 turned to the Internet as a reliable villain—a ubiquitous cultural force that, they assume, audiences regard with similar wariness. (And to think, this was long before the Sony cyber-attacks provoked by The Interview.) By choosing the World Wide Web as its favorite bad guy, though, Hollywood reveals as much about itself as the entity it’s scorning. Social media has been a powerful force for promoting movies and their stars, but in films such as Chef, Birdman, and Men, Women & Children, there’s an incredible fear and/or contempt for the ways Twitter and YouTube have upended the industry’s perceived social order. Filmmakers love how the Internet can spread the word about their projects—they just want the information superhighway to be a one-way street.
Let’s start with the recent movie that most intensely uses our modern-day interconnectedness as a dire warning about What’s Wrong With Society. Director Jason Reitman proved himself to be the crankiest, crotchetiest 36-year-old ever when he and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson adapted Chad Kultgen’s novel Men, Women & Children, about a group of suburban parents and their teen children coping with a world in which virtual communication—texting, tweeting, Facebook messaging—has replaced face-to-face interaction.
In 2011, when the book was published, Kultgen told The New York Times that he wasn’t making a cautionary polemic. “I don’t know if I really wanted to make a comment on this next generation and how the Internet and text messaging, and all the communication technology that we have, is changing the way we interact,” Kultgen said. “I didn’t want to actually pass judgment on it.”
It appears Reitman, an early champion of the book, didn’t agree with the author’s que sera, sera assessment. When the novel first hit stores, it bore a blurb from the Juno filmmaker: “Dark, hilarious, but most of all honest, Men, Women & Children is an unparalleled snapshot of sexual politics in the age of social networking, one that reminds me of my first encounters with films like The Graduate and American Beauty.” But when it came time to turn the book into a movie, Reitman clearly saw the material as fodder for zeitgeist-seeking, American Beauty/Little Children-style suburban malaise. Kultgen didn’t want to pass judgment, but Reitman was ready to fill the void with plenty of his own.
Though not as terrible as its harshest critics suggest—sensitive performances from Rosemarie Dewitt, Judy Greer, and Dean Norris humanize the handwringing to some degree—Men, Women & Children fumbles its potentially valid observations about how individuals’ feelings of isolation and worthlessness can be exacerbated by the Internet’s exaggerated, artificial sense of connection and community. But as a sign of how misjudged this ensemble survey of middle-class misery is, Jennifer Garner’s prissy, schoolmarm neighborhood watchdog is meant to be the comic relief—when in reality, she’s the film’s guiding light, insisting that the Internet and our cellphones are slowly poisoning everything that’s good about us. (According to Men, Women & Children, people only become anorexic, depressed, or adulterous because of the Internet or videogames.) I haven’t read Kultgen’s book, but his professed attitude toward its milieu—clear-eyed but not reactionary—sounds far better than Reitman’s movie, which adopts a faux-sophisticated tone (Emma Thompson narrates the film like it’s a novel) for a narrow-minded, judgmental, kids-these-days portrait of contemporary life that chastises social media without bothering to understand it.
But the pummeling Reitman and his modern-day Reefer Madness received after its disastrous première at the Toronto Film Festival partly obscured other 2014 entries in the dubious “The Internet Is Awful” subgenre. None were as blatant or as blinkered, but they were as telling in their own way.
One of this summer’s indie hits was Jon Favreau’s Chef, a comedy about a famed upscale chef (played by Favreau) who reinvents himself by buying a modest food truck and returning to the simple joys of cooking. Forgetting for a moment how autobiographical and self-serving that setup is—one-time Swingers scribe-turned-Iron Man blockbuster filmmaker gets back to making personal, low-budget projects—Favreau’s film is instructive in showing how stars perceive the double-edged power of social media.
Favreau currently has 1.79 million Twitter followers, and he occasionally sends them Instagram photos from behind the scenes of his live-action Jungle Book, which opens in October 2015. As a filmmaker, he’s savvy at using social media to build awareness and ramp up expectations for a potential event movie. (Plus, he knows how to serve his fan base, retweeting followers who send him photos of their Elf-themed cakes and Lego creations.)
By comparison, the character Favreau plays in Chef, Carl Casper, doesn’t understand social media, and his ignorance brings him down. When Carl gets a blistering review from a restaurant critic, he starts a Twitter account and impulsively tweets at him, not understanding that the message isn’t private. (Naturally, Carl’s son is the expert on Twitter—not dumb old Dad.) Carl’s angry tweet becomes a sensation, and when Carl later confronts the critic (Oliver Platt) in a rage, bystanders capture the moment on their phones, causing the ugly incident to go viral. Encouraged by some in his circle to parlay the online attention into a new gig—he’s quit his high-profile L.A. job to protest his boss’ uninspired culinary imagination—Carl instead retreats to his Miami hometown and starts from scratch. But what Twitter destroys, it can also rebuild: Aided by his son’s adept social-media promotion, Carl’s Cuban food truck becomes a word-of-mouth hit, building a following as they drive cross-country serving his nourishing dishes.
On the one hand, Chef has a healthier, saner perspective on social media than Men, Women & Children, viewing it as a tool, like any other, that isn’t intrinsically good or evil. (That balanced attitude may be a result of Favreau’s conversance with Twitter.) But on the other, Favreau’s movie diminishes Twitter’s cultural value to little more than a megaphone that damages or enhances reputations, serving as an easy screenwriting shortcut to gauge the progress of Carl’s fortunes. (In an earlier age, the character’s downfall would have been signaled by Jay Leno making a snarky joke during his Tonight Show monologue. Then, Carl’s later success would have been punctuated by his triumphant appearance on the cover of, say, Time.) Unwittingly, Chef plays into the thesis espoused by Reitman’s movie: Social media has created a world of self-obsessed, sensation-driven individuals with no worth of their own.
But at least Chef seems reasonable in its grappling with The Age Of Twitter. In Birdman, Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson wants to restart his floundering career by acting, directing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s showy, satirical, often dazzling semi-fantasy is more critical of its hero’s vain pursuit of artistic credibility than detractors acknowledge, but Birdman is still scolding and smug in its portrayal of entertainment journalism and social media.
Although Riggan is flawed and deluded, Iñárritu still respects him more than just about anyone in his periphery—specifically, the reporters lobbing inane questions at him about the possibility of returning to the incredibly lucrative Birdman franchise. And the invective is even harsher for the mindless rumormongers swirling on the Web: Early on, a pretty, vacant interviewer asks Riggan to confirm gossip from anonymous Twitter user “@ProstateWhispers,” who claims he’s injecting himself with baby-pig semen to stay young. (You can tell how little Birdman thinks of Twitter by that tortuously unfunny funny username. The screenwriters probably still get websites confused with blogs.)
In Birdman’s world, the Internet is the place where all the worst, most shallow people live. Ranting to his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) about his aspirations for his Carver play, Riggan yells, “[My career] is important to me, okay? Maybe not to you or your cynical friends, whose only ambition is to go viral.” The contempt in that last phrase hits stay-off-my-lawn proportions. But like Chef’s virtuous protagonist, Riggan eventually learns how Twitter can be an asset, albeit ironically. After Riggan freaks out and marches through Times Square in his underwear, Riggan tells him, “You’re becoming a trending topic,” pointing out that an uploaded video of the incident has generated “350,000 views in less than an hour.” “Believe it or not, this is power,” she tells her dad. Birdman views that fact with a mixture of amusement and disdain: It isn’t Riggan’s artistic integrity that has secured his comeback, but rather, something stupid and shareable.
Celebrities’ love/hate relationship with social media—and, by extension, their fans—extends beyond the movies. One of Jimmy Kimmel Live!’s most popular recurring features is “Mean Tweets,” where stars such as Adam Sandler, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Sofía Vergara read snotty tweets written about them by random online strangers. The surface joke is obvious—it’s amusing to see how the celebrity responds to a ridiculous, sometimes incredibly cruel comment—but the deeper reality is that the famous now live in a world where the non-famous can get access to them with far greater ease. Followed by fans with iPhones and Twitter accounts, stars have less control over their image than in previous generations, recognizing that any public slip-up could be preserved forever via Vine or YouTube. Hollywood still has the power, but social media can be an effective leveler. Even A-listers are susceptible to being humbled by their own hasty, ill-advised, poorly worded social-media comments, which can do lasting damage to their images.
Little wonder, then, that this persecution complex plays out at the movies, whether in melodramatically forlorn form in Men, Women & Children, or via condescension in Birdman. No one would say that Twitter or a YouTube comments page is a perfect service where users are all bastions of erudite insight and thoughtful, measured prose. But the increasing use of the Internet as a cinematic heavy, destroying individuals or communities, suggests that filmmakers and stars have yet to reconcile social media’s huge benefits with its potential pitfalls. Kultgen told the Times four years ago, “I just wanted to put it out there and say: ‘This is what’s happening. Get used to it.’” Hollywood still hasn’t.