It’s easy to giggle at The Circle, the movie, just as it’s easy to giggle sometimes at Dave Eggers, whose novel is the film’s source. James Ponsoldt’s adaptation (co-written with Eggers) is, like Eggers’ books, nakedly earnest, engaged with nothing less but The State of Things Now, smarter than its most fierce detractors will admit but also still a little clumsy.
It’s marked by the author’s young-adult zealousness and plotting that, depending on your sympathies, is either simplistic or fabulist. And sometimes it’s just accidentally hilarious. After her first week as a “guppy” at a Facebook-times-Google Silicon Valley behemoth, much of which she spends knitting her eyebrows in an expression of compelling uncertainty, Emma Watson’s Every-naif Mae becomes a social media star, electing to broadcast online every non-bathroom moment of her life. (You just have to roll with the movie on this choice.) A thoughtless post shows her ex (Ellar Coltrane) brandishing a chandelier he’s crafted from antlers. Soon, he turns up at the campus of the Circle, her cultlike employer, to report that the internet has turned on him — he’s getting death threats. As he speaks, and Mae throws herself into even greater brow-knitting, a shout comes from one of her co-workers: “Why don’t you go kill some more deer, Mercer?”
One snapshot of the dude shared by a viral personality gets him shouted down by strangers for hunting an animal it’s legal to kill. This is like a Breitbart parody of Twitter elites making pariahs of Real Americans, but it’s played dead straight. Worse, it’s the seed of the drama to follow.
Still, The Circle, like Eggers’ books, glances against some truths, sometimes with wit. I laughed the right way at crisp first scenes, which follow the indoctrination of Watson’s Mae, hired as a “customer experience” representative. Her job interview, all psych-eval non sequiturs, is fleet comedy: “Joan Baez or Joan Crawford?” she’s asked. Her riposte: “Joan Didion.” Once hired, she exchanges cheery instant messages with her supervisor, who sits just three feet away. He encourages her to aim for a 100 percent satisfaction rating on the surveys given to each customer she assists; later, cheery HR types let her know about another metric with which the Circle evaluates employees – a PartiRank charting her participation on the company’s platform and in “optional” on-site weekend activities. The satire is tinged with menace. Millions of office workers already understand that, for them, the dystopia will arrive wearing a lanyard.
Ponsoldt’s film is caught between comedy and paranoid thriller. I fear he half-asses the latter. It’s clear from the start that the Circle is creepy and invasive. Eventually, John Boyega turns up as a mystery man who drags Mae into underground tunnels so he can spill secrets off the grid, but everything he says is redundant. Early on, Tom Hanks, as the company’s avuncular public face, gives a TED Talk–like spiel about planting tiny cameras everywhere, all over the globe. He speaks warmly about “accountability and openness” yet doesn’t seem all that accountable/open himself.
Hanks is preeningly funny in the role of a salesman high on his own supply, but Ponsoldt doesn’t bother to make the character intimidating, neither as a proto-Bond villain nor just as any powerful boss. The first time Mae meets Hanks’ Eamon Bailey, face to face, she’s just out-of-the-blue sitting there, in his office, with no buildup; The Circle skips the summoning and her nervousness. In that meeting, Bailey asks the terrifying question “Do you have anything you want to tell us?” Just moments of screentime before, Mae was discovering secrets deep beneath the compound, but Ponsoldt lets her off the hook immediately, before the question has even sunk in. The film’s most suspenseful moment is cut together at the speed of that comic job interview.
The Circle suffers from other deficiencies, too. Mae goes from skeptic to terrified Circle-hater to impassioned true believer in too few scenes, with too little coherent motivation. Its look is undistinguished, all college-brochure sunniness; the imagineered tech utopia suggests the drab visions of Jurassic World. Most painfully, Bill Paxton’s small role is memorable only for one sight gag, the film’s biggest (intentional) laugh — but not a demonstration of his power.
But for all that I cheered The Circle’s humane climax, which centers around a speech zestily delivered by Watson, and I found the exaggerated invasions of privacy not quite plausible yet not unfamiliar, either. A set piece showcasing the near impossibility of hiding from the internet is tinged with ridiculousness but imbued with power thanks to Watson’s face, lit from behind by a projector, as Mae stands on a stage staring up a screen, her back to a cheering audience. Rather than uncertain, as before, Mae is at last terrified, just as you have been when you’ve beheld some social media moment go terribly awry — when the groupthink turns vicious, perhaps all out of proportion to the target’s transgression. The mob wants blood, and you wonder if there’s any point in even trying to talk reason. Yes, the specifics here verge upon the nonsensical, but hasn’t that also been the case in your life?