FILM REVIEW – THE CIRCLE. With Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Bill Paxton. Written by Dave Eggers and James Ponsoldt. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. 110 minutes.
One of the more enjoyable movies nobody saw last year was “A Hologram for the King,” director Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of a Dave Eggers book that starred Tom Hanks as an over-the-hill salesman struggling to hang on to a demeaning new job at an upstart tech company. The film wasn’t so much released as it was taken out back behind the barn and shot, which is a shame because it had a lot of odd, charming idiosyncrasies and moments of real truth, most of them found in Hanks’s quietly soulful performance. (I think we take him for granted because he always makes everything look so easy.)
Another April, another Dave Eggers adaptation with Tom Hanks as a guy at a tech company that’s being quarantined like the measles by its distributor. (This one wasn’t even screened in advance for critics, almost unprecedented for a film with such a distinguished pedigree.) A big difference is that this time, instead of a starring as a workaday schlub, Hanks has a supporting role as the Steve Jobs-like founder of a Google-ish monolith with utopian dreams of a surveillance state.
An even bigger difference is that THE CIRCLE is a terrible, terrible movie.
Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, an idealistic post-grad overjoyed to get a job in “Customer Experience” on the title company’s massive Bay Area campus. It’s a workaholic cult of shiny, happy millennials speaking almost exclusively in marketing buzzwords, and right away we can tell something’s amiss. Hanks has a grand old time playing up the sinister side of his avuncular persona–the performance has the insinuating edge he seemed to be trying to smuggle into his work as Walt Disney in that neutered Mousechwitz propaganda film, “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Director James Ponsoldt specializes in earnestly plodding indie dramas like “Smashed” and “The Spectacular Now.” There’s nothing in his stylistic arsenal to suit the surreal requirements of Eggers’ story, which is sort of a panicky, Luddite “Invasion of the Facebook Friend Snatchers.” Mae undergoes at least two or three massive personality shifts that make no sense whatsoever, a characterization as wobbly as Watson’s American accent. The plotting takes bizarre detours almost into the realm of science-fiction, but Ponsoldt insists on shooting it all with the granola aesthetic of a Sundance also-ran about a family farm. He’s an astonishingly wrong choice for this material, which is already pretty thin soup to begin with.
No points for guessing that Hanks’ privacy-obliterating ideals aren’t all that altruistic. But what may surprise you is what a poor case the movie makes against 24/7 surveillance as a fact of life, with no real ideas behind its portentous, already dated statements about The Way We Live Now. Eggers’ book was released in 2013 but the film feels like it was made at least fifteen years before that. (Mae’s allegedly culture-defining decision to webcast every banal detail of her life suggests Eggers never spent much time surfing camgirl sites.) As far as clueless alarmism goes, the “The Circle” will make a great double feature with Sandra Bullock’s 1995 camp classic “The Net.”
Obviously a troubled production, the movie is riddled with strange logic leaps and chucks of post-dubbed dialogue played off the back of the speaker’s heads. Uncomfortably awkward performances by “Boyhood’s” Ellar Coltrane and former Stormtrooper John Boyega are more cut-around than edited. Danny Elfman’s incongruous action movie score blares over conference room conversations as if they were Spider-Man rescuing a subway car.
The movie’s one great moment finds Hanks surveying the situation, putting a big fake smile and taking a sip off coffee as he mutters, “We are so fucked.” He must have just seen the dailies.•••
Over the past seventeen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.