It is possible that those years of my wayward youth spent toiling in the Valley of Silicon have colored my view of THE CIRCLE. The, at least to me, mundane observations about that particular corporate culture fall with a resounding thud as we see the way work and personal life intermingle, with everything one could want available on campus, and, if not free, at such a nominal cost that it makes leaving campus seem silly. That aside, the screen version of Dave Eggers’ novel of the same name takes the extrapolation of a promising premise, the merging of corporate and private life, and presents it with a distinct lack of finesse or subtlety. It is a metaphorical sledge hammer pounding home the bleeding obvious. James Ponsoldt, who has shown such a gift for translating source material with THE SPECTACULAR NOW, SMASHED, and THE END OF THE TOUR, here does a merely competent job of transcription. Contrived situations and a leaden performance by Emma Watson conspire against him. And us.
Watson is Mae Holland, a new employee at The Circle, a hi-tech concern that might be based on Facebook or any other social media entity of the moment. Run by a self-consciously posturing Regular Joe, Eammon Bailey (Tom Hanks, the quintessential Regular Joe), it is poised to remove the burden of privacy from the world’s population. A proposal that, thanks to the example Mae’s convenient accident in San Francisco Bay, will eliminate crime and danger. As Mae, who rises from Customer Experience representative to global phenom in the accident’s wake, solemnly acknowledges in a carefully orchestrated interview with Eammon, she would never have stolen the kayak involved if she’d known she was being monitored; she would have drowned if there had been no police response when said kayak overturned. Flush with the fervor of the true believer in complete transparency, she puts her entire life on display (save for more personal moments concerning bodily functions), and with her gung-ho lack of cynicism, sets the stage for a species of police state that has nothing to do with the authorities.
There are plot holes that rankle. How did Mae become best friends with Annie (Karen Gillan), the member of The Circle’s inner, ahem, circle when outside contacts are frowned upon? Or rather, as we see in a creepy interlude when the newbie is being cajoled by two glassy-eyed enforcers to join in on The Circle’s extra-curricular activities, smiled upon with artificial friendliness and a deep sense of both disapproval and disappointment. The idea of brainwashing and cultishness could not be more plain, though Mae, a smart and confident woman, fails to notice. Perhaps it’s the full dental for her, and the company insurance plan extended to her ailing father (Bill Paxton). Of course, she, and apparently, everyone else, also fails to notice how Annie is going to seed. And this is odd because everything is monitored closely, if not by cameras everywhere, then by the company-issued bracelet they all wear, even Dad, to keep track of everything going on metabolically. If nothing else, her unwashed and unkempt hair should be a dead giveaway. Why would the mysterious Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), who is suspicious of the people with whom he co-founded The Circle, and all the other employees there, take Mae into his confidence? And why would the ubiquitous monitoring not register when they go places that they shouldn’t?
As for the online attacks by other Circle-ers (as they are called), and the world in general, on Mae’s Luddite pal Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) for making chandeliers out of deer horns, how hard is it to find out that you don’t need to kill the ungulate to get them? They shed them annually after mating season.
But I digress.
Watson sleepwalks through the film, crying on cue, being elated on cue, being adorable on cue. It’s as though she is working through acting exercises in preparation for the role. Sporting trip jeggings and strategically stylish oversized tops, she is the emotional black hole at the center of the story, never compelling us to care about the story as it unfolds in its predictable fashion. Indeed, five minutes of Paxton’s character gamely dealing with MS is more complex, more engaging, and more human, that all of Watson’s screen time combined.
THE CIRCLE is not the cautionary tale it intended to be. Far from warning us about the dangers of technology invading our private lives, it is a précis on how to take a good idea, and run with it in the wrong direction.