Movie Review: “The Circle” (PG-13)
If you’re looking for an effectively constructed cautionary tale about the digital age and the perils and pitfalls that come with it, than “The Circle” probably isn’t for you. While there are certainly provocative ideas at the center of James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel, this movie is all over the place tonally, and the film is never quite as smart as it thinks it is. Essentially, this is a transparent movie about transparency.
In “The Circle,” Emma Watson is Mae, a bright young woman looking to make a decent living. She gets her opportunity when a close friend lands her an interview at a world renowned tech company called The Circle. After nailing the interview, Mae settles into her brand new dream job, and it isn’t long before she makes her way up the corporate ladder after impressing CEO Bailey (played by the great Tom Hanks) through an odd set of circumstances. Shortly thereafter, the bigger-than-life CEO enlists Mae in an ambitious experiment that has the new star employee having her every move documented by multiple miniature cameras located in her living quarters and on her person, giving entirely new meaning to the term “Big brother is watching.”
The politically charged but ultimately tepid “The Circle” poses interesting questions, the primary one being “Would we be more honest with ourselves and those around us if we knew were constantly being watched?” Again, this is an interesting question to ponder but one that’s trapped in a convoluted mess of a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. Is this a techno thriller? A mystery? A satire? Who knows? In the end, “The Circle” sort of plays like an unfocused millennial take on something like “1984.”
There’s certainly an accomplished cast here. Coming off of her much publicized work in the box-office juggernaut that is Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Watson is asked to carry this movie on her shoulders. While she isn’t horrible in “The Circle,” there isn’t anything particularly dynamic about her either.
Affable superstar Tom Hanks plays his role as a Steve Jobs-type who, at the surface, looks to have the world’s best interests at heart. But could it actually be that perhaps he’s just another a power-hungry individual looking to push government aside and take control? Likewise, the great Patton Oswalt plays Bailey’s right-hand man as someone who may or may not have a hidden agenda.
A likable John Boyega shows up as a mysterious tech in “The Circle” who, for whatever reason, takes a liking to Mae and entrusts her with valuable information. Boyega is given very little to do here, and his underwritten character only appears to pop up when certain plot elements need explaining.
The strongest performances in “The Circle” come courtesy of the late Bill Paxton as Mae’s father with multiple sclerosis and Glenn Headly as Mae’s supportive but overwhelmed mother. Karen Gillan (“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) also turns in solid work as Mae’s wired best friend, Annie, a career-driven woman whose sheer exhaustion eventually catches up with her.
There’s a lot going on here, but in the case of “The Circle,” the ideas are much more interesting than the execution. The employees at “The Circle” feel more like a cult comprised of mindless drones, and had the film used that to its advantage and gone in more of a satirical direction, it might have been more interesting. Instead, “The Circle” meanders along in a heavy-handed and rushed fashion (seriously, very few scenes in this picture are give sufficient time to breathe) and ultimately, the proceedings get bogged down in a sea of self importance. Furthermore, even Mae’s scheme to make The Circle a better place at the end of the picture feels predictable when clearly it was designed to surprise viewers.
It’s all a shame, really, because Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) is a strong director. In fact, his last outing, the insightful conversational piece “The End of the Tour,” was one of 2015’s best films. Sadly, Ponsoldt doesn’t fare as well in his first foray into big-studio filmmaking. The proceedings feel over-directed by comparison. Instead of a thought-provoking piece about the world we’re living in, “The Circle” plays more like a goofy, second-rate “Truman Show” or “Black Mirror” episode.