There is a lot of potentially great, provocative material to be mined in The Circle. Based on the novel by Dave Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay with director James Ponsoldt, whose last effort was The End of the Tour), the film is about a gigantic online network/company/gestalt (Google would be the closest and most obvious reference) that is essentially inserting itself into every aspect of everyone’s lives, ostensibly for good reasons like connecting with friends and family, monitoring someone’s health, or spotting crimes or human rights violations as they occur.
The question, of course, both in the movie and in the lives of all of us in the real world, is: do we really want to abandon virtually all our privacy in the name of a greater good? And do we trust the people who are collecting, collating and studying all this data about us?
The main problem with The Circle (and I have not read Eggers’ well-regarded book, so I don’t know how he approaches it there) is that Ponsoldt and Eggers’ script, along with Ponsoldt’s direction, never settles on a tone. The Circle could be a black comedy or a dark, almost conspiratorial thriller, but it never manages to be either. That quandary is not helped by Emma Watson, whose central performance is flat and uninvolving, and whose motivations and actions are at best murky and at worst nonsensical.
Watson plays Mae Holland, who lives at home with her parents (her father, played by the late Bill Paxton in his final film, is afflicted by MS) and works a dead-end job making collection calls for a water company. Her childhood friend Annie (Karen Gillan) works in upper management at The Circle and gets her an interview at the main campus, which is located in the Bay Area and sits on a large parcel of land like a curved version of the Pentagon. Inside the campus, there’s rolling, lush lawns full of sculptures, places to play games and do yoga, and seemingly endless activities for the employees to participate in when they’re not working; every need is catered to and, naturally, the workers are gently encouraged to stay on campus as much as possible.
Mae gets the entry-level job in “customer experience” after the kind of quirky interview that you expect these days either for or from millennials (“Paul or John?” Mae’s interviewer asks; “Early Paul, late John,” she replies) and soon finds herself at the receiving end of a gentle scolding from two other employees, who almost robotically inform her that she has not yet set up her social media account so that she can more fully connect with her fellow Circlers (she’s the most “mysterious” new employee as a result).
It’s the opening scenes, the movie’s sleek look and chunks of its first half that work most successfully, even if the film’s themes are telegraphed in such heavy-handed fashion. But Mae’s encounter with her two co-workers plays so unrealistically that you think the film is going to go all-in as a satire, except it doesn’t. Then there are moments when it feels like the film is going to plunge into Parallax View-type territory, but ends up pulling back and becoming just sort of a mushy, tension-free melodrama.
Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt are the heads of The Circle, and there is something to be said for the way they play the roles: they are never portrayed as obvious blackhats who plot to rule the world by knowing everything about everybody; Hanks in particular comes across as a genial Steve Jobs type who may genuinely think he is helping the human race. But even their work is undermined by later events in the story that head in a more and more implausible Truman Show direction, leaving it to the overwhelmed Watson to carry the dramatic load — which she can’t do.
Similarly saddled are John Boyega (Fin in the new Star Wars films) as an enigmatic Circle employee and Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood) as another of Mae’s childhood friends and a potential love interest. Both are there to more or less make the case against The Circle, but Boyega seems to be unsure of what he’s doing and Coltrane — who is just bad — comes across as more creepy than anything else. They, like many of the characters in the movie, are portrayed as plot devices more than real people.
I would like to say that maybe this is the point, and that in addition to its lectures about privacy and “transparency,” The Circle wants to show us how unreal and detached people become from one another when all their communication is done online. Like many elements of the movie, such an idea is insinuated, only to be thrown off in a later scene when two characters enjoy their first real, heartfelt conversation in months — via phone and separated by thousands of miles. It’s that constantly muddled point of view that causes The Circle, appropriately enough, to end up chasing its own tail with increasingly frustrating results.
The Circle is out in theaters Friday (April 28).