They See All: Preachy, flat, trite "The Circle" wants to be About Something

The Circle (2017)
110 min., rated PG-13.

For a zeitgeisty cautionary tale about Big Brother surveillance, the invasion of privacy and the oversharing on social media being a double-edged sword, “The Circle” holds less suspense than a TED Talk. And for a film that gives top billing to the lovely Emma Watson and the impossibly charismatic Tom Hanks, it really stumps one how such a well-pedigreed project gets everything so wrong. The source material is a prescient Orwellian 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with writer-director James Ponsoldt. For a filmmaker who has shined with low-key, character-driven films about intimate human communication, like 2012’s raw “Smashed,” 2013’s honestly observed “The Spectacular Now” and 2015’s smart, poignant “The End of the Tour,” was director Ponsoldt just out of his depth when working on a bigger canvas with even higher ambitions? With a more decisive vision, a steady handling of the narrative and its characters, and none of the poor creative decisions uploaded to the screen, who knows what might have been? As it is, “The Circle” is a dull, maddening mess that disappoints all around and never fulfills its great potential.

24-year-old Mae Holland (Emma Watson) works a dead-end cubicle job at a water company, dealing with unsatisfied callers as a customer-service representative, and wishes she could help out more at home with her mother (Glenne Headly) and MS-afflicted father (Bill Paxton). When she gets a call from best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) about getting an interview for a workplace called The Circle, Mae jumps at the opportunity to be a part of the hip, modern data-collecting and information-sharing corporation in the Bay Area (think Google meets Facebook meets Apple). It’s a dream gig and a fun, open community full of ambitious millennials like herself, and after receiving an entry-level position in the "Customer Experience" department, Mae is welcomed as one of the “guppies (or, “new kids”) at one of many lectures by Steve Jobs-like guru Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the company’s CEO. Everyone is encouraged to go “transparent,” wearing a mini camera on their person and recording everything for the world to see (save for bathroom breaks timed to three minutes), and in the next few months of working at The Circle, Mae will comply to the motto of her new company. It seems all too good to be true, but is it all for the greater good?

Preachy, dramatically flat and ultimately trite, “The Circle” looks smarter than it actually is and seems unable to make up its mind on what it wants to say. The setup is certainly enticing and cinematographer Matthew Libatique vividly juxtaposes Mae’s down-home life with the industrial steeliness of The Circle; the sleek shots that follow Mae walking on campus are also appropriate, as if drones are keeping an eye on her. Seen through the film and not just Eggers’ novel, there are plenty of interesting ideas ready to be explored, but they’re only half-formed and handled so haphazardly, writer-director Ponsoldt and co-writer Eggers too fickle about what they want their audience to take away. One spends a large chunk of the film’s 110 minutes waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not enough conflict is actually established, just muddled messaging, clumsily written character arcs, laughable plot developments (one in particular is overwrought and forehead-slapping when it should be tragic and shocking) and weak performance takes. There is one overacted scene in particular where two perky "circlers" approach Mae at her desk, telling her that they’ve noticed she hasn’t joined any group activities or opened up to The Circle's sense of connectivity, and it never strikes that right tone between nervously amusing and sinister. Aside from maybe two exceptions, there is even a distinct lack of chemistry between most of the characters, as if everyone met two minutes before the cameras started rolling.

Emma Watson is a fine guide as Mae, seemingly willing to go to darker, edgier places than the film actually allows for her relatively thin character. Her interview scene has an intelligence and snappy energy to it, but as the film goes along, she seems adrift and not because of her character’s displacement in the story or kayaking being her favorite pastime. Mae is skeptical at first, as anyone else with a working set of eyes and ears would be. Her arc, then, happens so fast in the choppy final edit that scenes seem to be missing. Before we know it, she makes the terrible decision to sneak through the gate of her favorite kayaking spot and paddle off the bay at night, going past the buoy into fog. This leads her to being hit by a boat and nearly drown, and then the next day having a conversation with Eamon Bailey, who gets her to speak a truth; from there, Mae hastily becomes a history-making web girl and spokesperson for The Circle, but it’s never clear if the character has actually taken a real drink of the Kool-Aid or is just putting on a ruse.

Starring in his second Dave Eggers adaptation (“A Hologram for the King” was last year), Tom Hanks seems well-suited for the part of The Circle’s co-founder Eamon Bailey because he radiates trustworthiness, but he’s barely there. Although selling his TED Talk-esque scenes on stage, the actor is unchallenged the rest of the time, while Patton Oswalt seems miscast as COO Stenton. John Boyega (so charismatic in 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) completely goes to waste as Ty, the inventor of The Circle’s technology who’s supposed to be in hiding and yet hangs out on his phone during the campus parties. He comes and goes so often that it wouldn’t be unbelievable if one were to read him as a figment of Mae’s imagination. Karen Gillan charges out of the gate with pep in her step as Annie, but once her character evolves, it happens so quickly that there’s more confusion than impact. Then there’s Ellar Coltrane, who’s great to see on the big screen again after 2014's “Boyhood,” but as Mae’s off-the-grid carpenter friend Mercer, his exchanges between Watson always feel written and unnatural. The only two characters in the film with actual chemistry are Mae’s parents, played by the always-lovely Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton in his final role.

“The Circle” may aim to be relevant and About Something, keeping its finger on the pulse of the current digital age, but whatever point it wants to make becomes lost in a film troubled by much noticeable post-production tinkering. Instead of making one think about much afterwards, it just does a lot of lecturing and makes the viewer think about what isn’t working. Instead of becoming an alarmist tech thriller, one keeps wondering why it isn’t more thrilling and why the level of paranoia isn’t taken above a low simmer. Additionally, the wrap-up is abrupt and unsatisfying with consequences never properly dealt with—and if that’s the point, the sense of irony doesn’t hit hard—as if Mae hasn’t taken away the right lesson and hasn’t really learned much of anything. For a character who talks about accountability, Mae certainly doesn’t own up to her mistakes that costs someone their life. This is one of those films that thinks it’s deep and insightful when it actually teaches very little.

Grade: C -