Film Review: The Circle

Timely ideas are not enough to buoy this thin adaptation of a Dave Eggers novel. In fact, they may sink it.
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It must have sounded wonderful over a conference call: one of the world’s most popular young actresses, paired with an enduringly popular actor, dramatizing a scenario conceived by a popular Western novelist, all in the name of voicing popular concerns over popular technology. If the movies are a business before anything else, the math must have been clear even to those who claim they have no head for figures—a “no-brainer.” Isn’t this just what people want? And aren’t we feeding them just the right sort of ideas? The meta implications are striking, because, as The Circle itself will tell, tell, tell you: One ought to beware the unexamined “good.”

James Ponsoldt’s (The Spectacular Now) adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel stars Emma Watson as Mae, an understated beauty in Jeggings with unrealized potential. Mae’s small town is dusty, her job in customer service demoralizing, and the health of her father (the late Bill Paxton), who has Multiple Sclerosis, is deteriorating. But then an angel with a manic Scottish brogue sounds “Hallelujah” through Mae’s earpiece: It’s best-friend Annie (a standout Karen Gillan), who has gotten Mae a job interview at the tech company where she works, the coolest company there is. Before long, Mae has aced her interview, answering questions such as “Needs of the individual or needs of society?” with replies like “Should be the same.” Childhood friend and Luddite Mercer (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane, all grown up and a natural) might distrust the place, but Mae is thrilled with her acceptance into The Circle.

This setup is established swiftly and deftly. It feels as though we’re zipping right along, but disappointingly, the ride plateaus not long after we’ve settled in for the anticipated ascent. The Circle is a tech monolith like Google that gained power with its social Web app TruYou, the particulars of which are a bit hazy, perhaps because when Mae begins to explain them, her interviewer stops her: She’s putting him to sleep. Behind his interruption is the sound of a screenwriting professor rapping knuckles as he admonishes, “Stop explaining!” Point well taken; and maybe the specifics of TruYou are unimportant. The film certainly has grander concerns.

At any rate, The Circle is a very big deal, as are its leaders, Bailey (Tom Hanks, wearing a wonderfully obnoxious laid-back rich-man sweater with a zipper collar) and Stenton (Patton Oswalt). There’s also the shadowy Ty (John Boyega), inventor of TruYou, who seems repulsed by The Circle, though he still hangs about the campus. He narrows his eyes and appears whenever important information needs to be divulged.

Mae’s beginnings are rough, but when a frightening experience shows her the benefits of Big Brother technology, she becomes a Circle evangelist. She develops an unprecedented following and is treated like a rock star. To the dismay of family and friends, she’s driven by the ideas that once troubled her... for a while.

The Circle works best when it’s funny, which leads one to wonder just how well it might have played had it followed the riskier path of comedic satire. Early on, Mae is accosted by the Fun Police, a pair from HR that chastises her for failing to socialize with her co-workers, and for opting out of weekend events that are, like, “totally optional.” It’s playground coercion—don’t you want friends?—with an implicit threat—make them, or else. The way they interrogate, shame and manipulate, using the words of compassion and camaraderie, is richly funny, and one of the most unsettling parts of a film that wants so to unhorse you.

The film succeeds, too, in capturing liberal groupthink. Anyone who has ever worked for a large lefty company will know how difficult it can be to resist the Kool Aid when each spoonful contains the dissolved contents of a dump-truck’s worth of sugar. It’s all well and good to be the maverick who stands up to injustice, but who wants to be the gal who argues against mitigating kidnap, rape and murder?

Given all this, why then is The Circle not so very good? There may be two answers, but they are fundamental: The faults lie in characters and stakes. Mae’s relationships are established early on, but the brevity and superficiality with which they’re subsequently handled make them feel like the narrative beats they are. This is never great, but since the movie does not aspire to be a character study, it’s all right for a while, until something happens about which we are, one can be fairly certain, supposed to care. In fact, several emotional things happen to Mae, one of which is devastating, but Mae’s responses are so muted (the tear and the brave, deep breath repeated over different circumstances make for a mockery of reserve), and the time the film takes to show them to us is so brief as to leave the well-intentioned filmmakers vulnerable to charges of cynicism.

In other words, human elements seem lost amid a story that purports to criticize the dangers technology poses to our humanity. And what is more human than doubt? Therein lies problem number two: There is never any doubt as to what is good and bad, what is wrong and right in The Circle. Through Bailey and his cohorts, The Circle posits some timely ideas: Ubiquitous cameras all over the world could track murderers. You’d never lose your children if they had chips up their bums. Our lives would be less private, but think how safe and well we could all live.

Unfortunately, the film won’t let you think this through. As soon as an idea in favor of The Circle is voiced, the shadowy presence of Ty, sycophantic smiles from Circle employees or their blood-lusty cheers, a pained look from Mae or Annie, even a cue from the soundtrack, signals: This is bad. The eventful plot should contain stakes, but without ambiguity (which comes from character) its drama is fatally weakened. The Circle might fool Mae, but it’s never allowed to fool us.

The Circle is a film that shouldn’t be boring. It has the popular elements and hints of more besides. But it is. Like an essay that fails to sound its opponents thoroughly, it does not persuade. But then, a movie shouldn’t be thought of as an essay at all.

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