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edge staff writer


'The Circle' circles the drain

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Tech thriller a dull, disorganized disappointment

There’s something wonderful about movies that somehow manage to maximize every piece and transcend the sum of their parts. It’s lovely to be surprised by how good a movie turns out to be.

But there’s another side to that coin, the films who – despite a seeming wealth of advantages in all aspects – simply fail to put it together. These are the ones where even moderate expectations feel wildly optimistic after the fact.

“The Circle” – directed by James Ponsoldt, who also co-adapted the screenplay with Dave Eggers from the author’s book of the same name - absolutely falls into the latter category, and does so perhaps more thoroughly and disappointingly than any other offering in recent memory. It is a suspenseless thriller that isn’t nearly as smart as it wants us to think it is, featuring a talented cast that is given oddly little to actually do.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson, “Beauty and the Beast”) is a temp worker dreaming of more. She lives at home with her mom (Glenne Headly, “Strange Weather”) and her MS-afflicted dad (Bill Paxton, “Term Life”); she’s got an almost-boyfriend named Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, “Barry”) who she’s keeping at arm’s length.

But when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan, “The List”) gets her an interview with The Circle (a massive and ubiquitous corporation that features basically everything you’ve ever heard about tech companies jammed together), Mae’s life changes. She’s swept up into the world of The Circle, with her loved ones slowly fading into the background.

And then – it changes again.

Due circumstances far too convoluted to get into here, Circle bigwigs Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, “Inferno”) – the Jobs-ian iconoclast cofounder – and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt, TV’s “Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Return”) - the nut-and-bolts behind-the-scenes guy - decide to use Mae to promote one of their new innovations. It’s all about everyone everywhere being monitored all the time. Or something. Anyway, she’s now wearing a camera 24/7, able to be seen online all the time.

Mae becomes a rising star at The Circle due to her new full transparency. But sinister machinations are afoot; it soon becomes clear that the motivations behind The Circle’s direction might not be as altruistic as they appear. And Mae might be the only one who can put the pieces together.

In case you’re still wondering, this movie is not good.

There’s a surprising amount of nonsense in “The Circle.” You’d think with this collection of talent on both sides of the camera, they’d fall backward into a decent movie. Alas, you’d be wrong. The film meanders its way through a seems-longer 110 minute runtime, with subplots wandering in and out of the narrative. Characters make decisions with rapidly-changing (or entirely absent) motivations. There’s relatively little genuine resolution here, and what is resolved doesn’t really make any sense.

The Circle as an entity might be the most ridiculous thing of all, a Hollywood fever dream of a tech company, with all of the glass-walled open floor-planned offices and the massive ever-active campus and the cult-like nature of employee culture. What it actually does is … unclear. It seems to be some sort of social media giant, but its ambitions are pretty standard ubiquitous surveillance we-are-always-watching stuff.

Look – it’s not like we don’t get the message. “The Circle” has all kinds of messages that it wants you to know it’s sending and hurls them around with ham-fisted abandon. Privacy concerns, tech evolution, changing notions of social interaction - we see them. The trouble is that not one of these messages is explored with any depth. It’s just a bunch of half-baked surface-level business that accomplishes nothing but more pointless plot.

But it’s the cast that is most surprising in terms of disappointment. Emma Watson is an incredible talent, but this role was little more than a cipher – the movie itself takes great pains to paint her with a patina of averageness. She’s an audience stand-in – I get it – but she’s way too talented to be given so little to do. Tom Hanks is fine; he’s basically doing his charming dad thing in a different setting, although again – it’s kind of shocking how little he gets to do. Oswalt and Coltrane have to jump through some awkward hoops, jumps they execute with mixed success.

(Oh, and John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) is in this movie, as an emeritus employee at The Circle with major access and major suspicions. He hardly even registers as a character; he’s basically a plot device, a deus ex hackina built around the magical powers to which Hollywood still insists on ascribing to computers. At least “The Last Jedi” is coming soon…)

 “The Circle” could have been good. It SHOULD have been good … or at least OK. With heavyweight talent in the cast and respected source material and a gifted director, this would seem to be a tough one to screw up. And yet, here we are, left with a film that prompts plenty of eye-rolls and unintended chuckles, thanks to a scattershot narrative, suspenseless storytelling and an already-dated self-importance.

[1.5 out of 5]


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