Circle, The (2017)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/28/17 12:08:52

"Circle (And Heads) In The Sand"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There are so many films that turn up in theaters these days without having any advance press screenings—generally considered to be a sure-fire signal that a movie is pretty awful—that it hardly even raises an eyebrow any more. However, when it was announced that “The Circle” was going to be going out the way of such clunkers as “Rings” and “Underworld: Whatever The Last Subtitle Was,” some were a bit shocked by that news. After all, this was a film based on a book by Dave Eggers (who co-wrote the screenplay as well), directed by James Ponsoldt, whose previous films included the acclaimed likes of “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour” and co-starring the likes of Emma Watson and Tom Hanks—how bad could a movie combining those talents possibly be? As it turns out, it isn’t nearly as bad as the lack of faith demonstrated by distributor STX might suggest—it is far from perfect and contains a number of cringeworthy elements but in its best moments, it is smarter and funnier than the dull-looking techno-thriller that the ads are trying to make it seem like, apparently in the hopes of luring in viewers who have been yearning for this generation’s “Antitrust.”

Watson stars as Mae, a smart young woman wasting away in a meaningless customer service job when she lucks into a job at The Circle, a mammoth tech company that feels like an amalgamation of the things we know or speculate about the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon. At first, she is overwhelmed by the astonishing breadth of the company and its dream of making the world a more open and transparent place by gathering as much information on its users and employees alike but after a while, she eventually drinks the Flavor-Aid and embraces the company line so zealously that she catches the eye of CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks), who recruits her to be the public face of a new experiment in which members of The Circle are encouraged to voluntarily give up all notions of privacy by broadcasting their every waking moment for all to see and some to monetize for their own benefit. It is all fun and games for a while but when her online existence threatens her relationship with her parents (Bill Paxton, in one of his last roles, and Glenne Headly) and her off-the-grid friend (Ellar Coltrane), the awful implications of transparency—at least as defined by The Circle—begin to dawn on her and she must figure out how to bring it to a halt before it is too late.

Due in large part to the distinct lack of confidence in the film held by the studio, I went into “The Circle” with extremely lowered expectations and came away from it reasonably satisfied. Granted, its observations about the pitfalls of modern technology are not especially earth-shattering but as an observation of the contemporary corporate mindset, which seeks to have its employees give up all notions of a life away from the office—all “voluntarily,” of course—while convincing them to willfully surrender every possible bit of privacy so that every aspect of their existence can be exploited for further profits, it has some smart and funny things to say. As the ostensibly affable CEO, Hanks is pretty much pitch-perfect in his few scenes as he cannily finds the dark side to his likability and Watson does good work as a smart woman who nevertheless finds herself succumbing to the pressures of the workplace and cheerfully doing things that she would have been aghast at the very thought of only a few months earlier.

That said, “The Circle” is anything but a smooth experience for the majority of its running time. There are times when Ponsoldt and Eggers lay things on a little too thick for their own good and the scenes involving the neo-Luddite friend and a mysterious Circle employee who befriends Mae (John Boyega) do not work at all. The ending is also a big problem as well. Having never read the book, I cannot say whether the film follows the story exactly in its final third or if it varies wildly but either way, once Mae realizes just how far she has allowed herself to be corrupted in the name of “progress” and tries to set things right, the film becomes progressively less interesting, culminating in a climax is way too ham-fisted and unlikely for its own good and which practically suffocates under the weight of its smugness. Considering the intelligence of all involved, I wish that the film could have come up with a better finale that a turnabout-is-fair-play bit that seems more appropriate for a lesser Adam Sandler opus that something of this pedigree.

On the scale of trenchant cinematic satire, “The Circle” is pretty much this generation’s “Wrong is Right”—it isn’t consistently good, funny or thought-provoking and there are moments that are close to embarrassing but it does contain moments of wit, intelligence and insight to be had and appreciated, provided that you aren’t expecting anything on the level of “Dr. Strangelove.” Even at its weakest moments, it is hardly deserving of the virtual shunning that it received before its release, a move that all but guaranteed to cause it to fail with critics and audiences alike. It won’t change your life or your online habits in the slightest, but those in the moody for an earnest, if not exactly subtle, look at the places where technology has taking us to and where it might be heading if we are not careful, it is not entirely without interest.

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