The ingredients for a good film are all there in The Circle. The picture was directed by James Ponsoldt, whose The Spectacular Now was in my top 10 a few years ago, while his previous picture, The End of the Tour, also drew critical acclaim. The film’s cast includes Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane (of Boyhood), John Boyega (of the new Star Wars films), the late Bill Paxton, the funny Patton Oswalt and a rare appearance by Glenne Headly.
And yet The Circle is an absolute mess. When its characters aren’t spouting expository dialogue or taking part in unbelievable heart-to-hearts, they’re finding themselves tangled up in a contrived and far fetched conspiracy thriller plot.
In the film, Emma Watson’s Mae works a dead-end job performing customer service over the phone. She lives with her parents – a father with multiple sclerosis (Paxton) and mother played by Headly – and has an ex-boyfriend (Coltrane) who apparently spends much of his time carving items out of wood (don’t ask) and, unfortunately, finds himself delivering some of the film’s worst lines, which is saying something.
One of Watson’s friends (Karen Gillan) lands her an interview at the titular company, a cult-like media outfit in the Bay Area that has a mission to make everything transparent, which involves placing cameras everywhere and knowing what everyone is up to at all times. How do we know this? Because the film makes sure to spell this out for us over and over again during the course of the picture. It’s one of those films in which characters say things that sound creepy and unconscionable, but do so with a big smile plastered on their faces, so that we know that Something Is Very Wrong.
Mae starts at the company with some nebulous type of sales position – by the way, what type of sales gig requires you to live in a compound with all of your fellow employees? – and, seemingly within a few weeks, graduates to being one of the company’s top minds with a level of autonomy that only exists in movie workplaces.
Mae agrees to take part in a program at The Circle that involves complete transparency – in other words, people watching her every move and listening to whatever comes out of her mouth. She becomes a web sensation in a plot thread that feels ripped right out of The Truman Show, that is, until she begins to realize that the whole endeavor is sorta ghoulish.
If The Circle gets anything right, it does a decent job of capturing the cult-like aura of some modern new media and technology companies. Everyone working at The Circle is just – as Chris Farley once said, so excited! – to be there.
At the same time, this is yet another movie in which the world wide web is the villain – the other two heavies being Oswalt’s glowering second in command and Hanks’ Steve Jobs-type character, who is slightly unnerving since the actor plays him with the same level of good naturedness that you’d expect from him.
Other than that, the picture is a bit of a disaster. One character’s accent is barely recognizable and later laid on thick, seemingly for no reason. A death scene involving a supporting character is completely ludicrous and its aftermath – or lack thereof – is laughably inept. Ponsoldt’s previous films were character driven dramas with naturalistic dialogue, but the writing in The Circle feels flat. And even the end is hazy in terms of the direction in which Mae points her talents and whether it’s a good or bad thing. A lot of talented people worked on this film, so it’s astounding that it turned out to be such a misfire.