Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Circle

Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson,  Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
Running Time:
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Within James Ponsoldt's adaptation of Dave Egger's 2013 dystopian sci-fi novel, The Circle, resides an idea, and sometimes even a reality, so timely and captivating that the film literally forgets to anything with it. Starting strongly, it builds its promising premise one step at a time, methodically mapping out a clear direction the story should take and where everyone wants to see it go. It's one of those rare cases where predictability is desired because the concept is so rich it almost feels as if most of the work is done. Unfortunately for us, as viewers, it's an eye-opening reminder of just how false that assumption is. No concept on its own is ever good enough to carry an entire picture. So just as The Circle seems to get going, it ends. Or rather, it just closes. Complete stoppage. In fact, the film feels so abruptly unresolved, even when the credits started rolling, I was still unsure it concluded. With a certifiable treasure trove of unexplored material left, it may be the cruelest example yet of a movie not being what it's about, but how.

Armed with a talented cast, a superb writer/director, and screenplay co-penned by the author himself, it fails to do something that seems almost ridiculously simple: Raise the stakes. The film's very existence promises that, as we're teased throughout that it'll dive into those deep, dark, morally compromising waters occupied by the likes of 1984 or A Brave New World, its obvious inspirations. And the timing couldn't have possibly been better for it. But instead, we're left nodding our heads in agreement at all the timely, relevant ideas the movie contains, appreciating something that more closely resembles a documentary about what a great movie about those ideas would look and feel like. Two hours of set-up with minimal payoff. Strangely, it might be one of the best recent remake candidates, as it would be tempting to see what the same cast could do with a different script that lets them fully follow through on all the ideas presented, and frustratingly left on the table, relegated to our imaginations.

When struggling customer service rep Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is contacted by her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) about a potential job opening at the enormous, Google-like, California-based tech company she works for called The Circle, it seems to be the perfect opportunity. With her father, Vinnie (Bill Paxton in his final role) suffering from multiple sclerosis as mom Bonnie (Glenn Headly) provides around-the-clock care, Mae's personal life is in a bit of turmoil, tempered somewhat by a recent reunion with ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane). After apparently acing what's best described as a bizarre interview, Mae gets a job in The Circle's "Customer Experience" department, where she learns the importance of maintaining a strong and very public social media presence within the company.

The mastermind behind this entire operation is CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who with right-hand man and co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), envisions a world of complete transparency with his introduction of a program called SeeChange, and wants rapidly rising employee Mae to be the face of it. But when co-worker and social networking pioneer Ty Lafitte (John Boyega) keys her in to the company's potentially nefarious motives, she must make a choice that puts her personal beliefs and the privacy rights of citizens directly at odds with an opportunity to be at the forefront of a new digital revolution.

As a reflection of the world in which we currently live and where it seems to be heading, the script hits it right on the head, successfully envisioning a fictional tech company nearly identical to and inspired by both Google and Apple. With a base of operations more closely resembling a laid-back university campus than the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) really gets the aesthetic  of what this environment would look and feel like, as well as the excitement of being a part of it. That this is happening right now and the film's strongest aspect is that with its emphasis on social media obsession and the elimination of privacy, not a whole lot of what occurs seems even the slightest bit exaggerated. If anything, it could stand to go more over-the-top, which is exactly where we think things are going.

In capturing the wide-eyed exuberance of a reserved girl overwhelmed by her new surroundings, Emma Watson's performance as Mae, while fine, seems to be a bigger achievement in casting than anything else since she (like most everyone else) is never pushed to do the heavy lifting you'd think would accompany a story this ripe with possibility. Of course, Eamon and The Circle have less than philanthropic intentions with the rollout of this new technology, which essentially monitors every individual 24/7 with hidden cameras, and it's to the screenplay's credit that it does at least address the pros and cons of this technology, as well as its moral implications. Unfortunately, it doesn't get around to showing any of them, at least in an impactful enough manner to kick the narrative into the next gear.

When Mae becomes this social media superstar, embracing her role within the company and supporting its mission, the film, and Watson's performance, are its strongest, reflecting Truman Show-like themes that explore the dangers and thrills of living an entirely public life, accompanied by some great on screen visuals. And as she becomes Eamon's pet project, that was absolutely the time to take things to the next sinister level, as you could easily rattle off about four of five steps the writers could have taken to make this company seem like a lethal threat. What they're planning certainly warrants it, posing a big enough threat to be endangering the lives of anyone questioning the organization's purpose, especially Mae, who's ascended into the inner Circle. Why not tamper with her father's medical equipment? Or do something with or to John Boyega's mysterious character, whose dropped just as quickly as he's introduced.

When something does finally occur that could be considered "dangerous," it's essentially an accident involving a character whose relationship to the protagonist was presented in such a muddled, ambiguous way from the moment he first appeared on screen, that it hardly connects. A sub-plot involving dissension between Mae and her friend Annie over the company's agenda isn't developed at all and seems to come out of nowhere.The biggest loss stemming from the script's faults is a failure to properly utilize Tom Hanks, here given the rarest of opportunities to sink his teeth into what could have been one of the actor's most complex roles had the material supported him.

It's almost painful to watch Hanks' scenes since his magnificent channeling of a scheming, Steve Jobs-like CEO, whose greed convinces him he knows what's best for the world, is basically undercut by an uneventful screenplay. Watching him on stage in his corporate presentations, you can only imagine the result had this gone to that dark place, allowing him to really cut loose and get inside the head of a potentially fascinating on screen villain. Instead, he's forced to provide nearly all of this himself, but it's a good bet most will still be thoroughly impressed with how much he does with it. And already well established by now as a surprisingly strong dramatic supporting presence, Patton Oswalt sits it out on the sidelines, mostly forced to stand around giving stern looks. This all leads to a final act let-down, as you could envision something similar to this ending actually working had the groundwork been properly laid leading into it. What we're left with feels more like an extended teaser for a more compelling project.

While assessing the movie you didn't see rather than what's on screen is rarely a good idea, what happens when most of its running time is comprised of reminders of that better, unseen film? It seems as if every scene unintentionally teases us with what we could have been, and despite this being one of my most anticipated releases of the year, it's hard to look at it as anything other than a disappointment, regardless of expectations. That indie-leaning Ponsoldt is such a great director probably accounts for nearly half those expectations, making it easy to assume that the biggest, most mainstream effort of his career was hampered by a studio that lacked the guts to explore the potentially polarizing, but compelling themes Eggers' put forth in his novel. For The Circle to be successful, it had to go dark, and use the platform it was given to intelligently exploit some very real and timely fears. By never fully addressing the ideas at its core, we're left with a final product that feels less like a paranoid thriller than a tame corporate training video.

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