Talent Goes Down With The Ship In Abysmal Tech Thriller "The Circle"

Springing off the resplendent one-two punch of indie dramas “The Spectacular Now” and “The End Of The Tour,” writer-director James Ponsoldt is back, but with a twist. He’s forgone his conversationalist wheelhouse for tech thriller “The Circle,” co-adapting with writer Dave Eggers from Eggers’ novel of the same name. But the twist isn’t that Ponsoldt has expanded his cinematic horizons; it’s that the results are dreadful. A first act that merely disappoints rolls into a calamitous second act, burdening a capable cast with remarkably crummy storytelling (the entire picture hinges on one character’s hankering for some late-night kayaking) and a Charybdis of overly simplistic warnings about the perils of technology – warnings that Hollywood has made many times before.

Emma Watson (“Beauty And The Beast”) headlines this mess as Mae, a new inductee into a Google-like corporation-slash-cult called The Circle. The company is in the midst of a new product launch: Tiny, rugged cameras. Stick these camouflaged orbs anywhere and everywhere implores Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the head of the company, in a speech to a theater of fawning employees. The obvious privacy-related complications of such a product go down as you might expect, only with all the bad movie trappings you’d think the wildly talented Ponsoldt couldn’t possibly be a party to.

At the heart of the movie’s awfulness is actor Ellar Coltrane (“Boyhood”), saddled with one of the most unintentionally funny character arcs in recent memory. Coltrane plays Mercer, an artist and friend of Mae’s. Mercer’s talent for turning deer antlers into chandeliers gets filtered through Mae to her co-workers as animal abuse, ultimately turning everyone at The Circle against this person they don’t know and have no particular reason to care about.

As soon as he shows up unannounced on The Circle’s campus and a stranger yells “Deer killer!” at him, we can feel the movie begin to slide down the tubes, although it’s not immediately clear just how far down the tubes it’s about to go. The scene’s bad dialogue performed uneasily by Coltrane (combined with some very wide shots as to poorly conceal some overt dubbing) is the movie in a nutshell; both half-baked and burnt to a crisp, begging not for reshoots (the film went through reshoots just a few months ago), but a total rewrite.

Hanks’ role is nothing more than an extended cameo, his duties as producer presumably precluding him from more screen time. Or his character was further fleshed out in scenes left on the cutting room floor. Or the Oscar winner couldn’t be bothered to waste any more time on a sinking ship. Any which way, his presence is not a reason to check out the film; it’s very nearly one of many not to. It ranks among his worst (or least interesting) performances.

The rest of the supporting cast is almost an across-the-board bummer, too.

Stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt (“Ratatouille”) is dangerously out of his element as Bailey’s right-hand man. John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) is bad as bad character Ty Lafitte, a mysterious figure that, in the end, might as well be a hologram for all the real world pull he has in the story. And, through no fault of the film, it’s a total downer to see the late Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles, play Mae’s dying father. (Paxton lends the picture its only human performance, but it’s hard to watch.) Only Karen Gillan (“Guardians Of The Galaxy”) is a pleasant surprise, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. She plays Annie Allerton, friend and co-worker of Mae’s, a character whose downward spiral from life of the party to emo kid is so sudden and inexplicable you’ll wonder if you took a bathroom break that you definitely didn’t take.

In the end, the movie is only redemptive in its late game idiocy. Its second half is truly a shame, the kind of shame that just happens to be a blast to make fun of. If it were an episode of Channel Four and Netflix’s “Black Mirror” (Eggers’ story is eerily similar to some of the TV show’s most well-known episodes), it would be the worst one by miles and miles, and the list of movies and shows with similar aim and better execution is long – and without the talent involved in “The Circle.” And that’s the project’s biggest sin. What reason in heaven or Earth is there for it to be so inept?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: April 28, 2017
Studio: STX Entertainment
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriter: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use)