By: 3-Deep (Four Beers) –
There was so much potential in The Circle. So much rich, timely, thematically compelling potential. James Pondsolt, the indie filmmaker behind two of the best films of this ongoing decade, The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, was serving as the producer, co-writer, and director of the project. Then there was the cast, which was great, including Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Boyhood‘s own Ellar Coltrane, and Bill Paxton’s final film performance. There’s no honest weak link in the bunch. And to top it all off, it comes from author Dave Eggers, the acclaimed, award-winning writer behind a few of the most revered books of the past 20 years. And the book it was based upon, The Circle, wasn’t half bad! It was brisk, thoughtful, engaging, enlightening. It was everything a cinematic blueprint needed to be. Knowing he was on board to co-write the screenplay gave a quiet assurance to it all.
Or, at least, it did.
Like the book that inspired it, The Circle centers around Mae Holland (Watson), a bright, inquisitive, if unassuming, early 20-something trying to forge her way into the working world. Stuck in a dead-end job which is going nowhere yesterday, she needs a big break, and she needs it as soon as humanly possible. That’s where Annie (Gillan), her closest college friend, comes into play. One of the highest level employees of The Circle, the monopolizing tech company that’s essentially a mix of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, LinkedIn, and nearly every other noteworthy tech company out there, plus Enron, Annie pulls a few strings and scores Mae an interview, which she nails. From there, Mae is seemingly set for life. The Circle might be an all-consuming enterprise, but it’s a friendly, supportive one, fueled by inspiration, encouragement and a need to pave the way to a better, stronger future. Or, you know, so it would seem.
It’s when Mae joins The Circle that Eamon Bailey (Hanks), one of the main head honchos of the company, unveils his latest technological wonder: SeeChange, a device that’ll let anyone see any place in the world, so long as they attach a little camera to their surroundings, which costs nearly as much as a new pair of pants. It’s only a matter of time before we’re able to see everything and anything, all from the comfort of our computers or tablets, because sharing is caring! At least, that’s what they tell their employees, again and again, but not everyone is ready to drink the mandated Kool-Aid. Against the eventual totalitarianism are Mercer (Coltrane), Mae’s level-headed hometown handyman who doesn’t believe in the cause, and Ty (Boyega), a mysterious, if knowledgeable, individual that’s unlike his other Circle employees.
Mae does her best to keep a levelheaded approach, but there’s no such thing as ordinary in The Circle. From there, Mae shoots her way up to the top, where she finds herself at the center of more controversy and conflict than she could ever imagine. Especially as Bailey and his team, including his right-hand man Stenson (Oswalt), the Woz to Bailey’s Jobs, aim for full transparency in a muddy, fractured world.
Like Pondsolt’s other films, The Circle is positively gorgeous from a visual standpoint. Even with a more high-concept (in a loose sense) premise than he’s used to working with, the talented filmmaker adds a grounded levity that communicates some honest, beautifully-captured realism in a few key moments. They might be few-and-far between in a movie that makes as many nonsensical decisions as this film does, and I’ll get into that in just a minute, but these moments are never less than stunning when they do come. Even as his worst, Pondsolt still finds a way to make his newest effort look visually stunning.
And that really benefits the first 20 minutes, which work more than they don’t, as they promise a stronger, more compelling film than we ultimately receive in the next 100-ish minutes. Like Eggers’ book, The Circle knows how to promise intrigue and how to tantalize an engaging look at a not-too-distant future. This premise might not be as foretelling as it was when the book hit shelves, but there are still signs of truth and foreshadowing to be gleaned, which makes you worried about the next time you check Facebook.
Eh, scratch that. I just checked Facebook again. I guess there’s still some work to do, Eggers.
Oh boy. Where do we begin?
Essentially, The Circle finds a way to make everything that zinged in the book and make it zang. You say “zang” isn’t a word? Well, then indulge me, if you please. Mae Holland, as presented in the book, is guileless but headstrong, a woman that is sucked into the machine but isn’t necessarily clueless about it all. Watson’s Mae, however, is plain-faced and unassuming to a fault, a lamb that’s gently pushed to its slaughter. Perhaps that would’ve made for a compelling main character in a stronger, more concentrated piece, but The Circle is too confused and uncertain of itself to determine what its narrative is trying to do, let alone its central characters. It’s neither a grim mood piece nor a cheeky social satire. It’s simply a tepid, unremarkable would-be techno-thriller with all its interesting ideas watered down and barely explored.
There’s no suspense or genuine intrigue in Pondsolt’s discouragingly bland fifth film. Everything is presented with blatant exposition or muffled story dynamics, with characters that Eggers and Pondsolt seemingly expect only those who read the book beforehand to understand. Character motivations flip on the dime. Dynamic set pieces are treated like nifty wallpaper and little more. Actors are left searching for their characters’ internal drive and they only come up with half-explained answers. Everything about this adaptation appears confused and insecure. Considering it’s Pondsolt’s first studio feature, perhaps it’s safe to assume some studio meddling was the main source of misdoing? But even if that’s the case, the overall narrative feels rushed and unusually directionless. There’s a distinct Freeform quality to each scene that doesn’t present the proper scope or depth of each impactful action. Without that needed tension, The Circle becomes confusing or overly predictable. There’s hardly any middle ground.
The script is, at the very least, underwhelmed in its current presentation. Like many bad film adaptations, it has a nasty habit of over-explaining what’s happening rather than showing us. The few sequences that do rely on visuals stand out because they provide something resembling inspiration and stylistic flourishes. Sadly, though, some crummy, often unnecessarily added dialogue will ruin such moments, and anything that comes close to subtlety is then immediately told in the most blatant, unassuming manner. There’s nothing fun about how this movie plays itself out. The Circle, the novel, is a juicy page-turner that keeps you excited and alarmed throughout. In contrast, The Circle, the movie, is like a dial-up computer, waiting to finally turn itself on. By the time the juices are flowing and the energy should be heightened, it barely resembles anything close to thoughtfulness or heart-pounding thrills. This circle is a flatline.
There’s a damn good movie in The Circle, and it should’ve been made by these people. That it wasn’t found, or even close to being seen, is not merely disappointing but frustrating. Because it’s hard to figure out what went wrong. The script is, as far as it’s seen here, is messy, the acting is mostly confused or undermotivated, and the direction lacks the preciseness and delicate touch of Pondolst’s other, far better predecessor films. There’s a good chance everyone involved will bounce off of this one fine. They’re all too talented and established to not make it to the other side through this misfire. But it’s a classic example of when a bunch of great people simply can’t make the most of their time. The Circle doesn’t come together.
The Circle (2017) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every John Boyega reaction shot.
Take a Drink: something totally predictable happens.
Take a Drink: whenever character motivations simply don’t make a lick of sense.
Take a Drink: every time someone says “The Circle.”
Take a Drink: anytime Evil Tom Hanks with a Beard smiles menacingly.
Do a Shot: whenever that certain thing FINALLY happens.