There’s a long tradition of stories that perfectly suit the printed novel but don’t translate to film, and I’m always curious if it’s the fault of the source material or the script and/or director. I’ll bet the studio who backed a project with novelist wunderkind Dave Eggers’ name on it thought they had a sure fire hit, but “A Hologram For the King” was a mess. If it was anything like the novel it must have been a terrible novel, but at the time it seemed more likely the script by director Tom Tykwer was to blame.
We can’t really blame the screenwriter for “The Circle’s” flaws because it’s Eggers himself along with director James Ponsoldt. Maybe his books just have some magical X factor that doesn’t translate to film, the same way so much of Stephen King’s work does.
Mae (Emma Watson) is a smart young woman who’s a bit down on her luck with money and in a dead end job when she gets a dream gig at a giant tech company called The Circle, a fictional amalgam of Google, Facebook and Apple complete with its own charismatic, turtleneck-wearing CEO Bailey (Tom Hanks) who espouses a philosophy that technology will save the world and who has Wall Street and consumers eating out of his hand.
Despite some initial stumbles, Mae buys into the corporate culture, complete with the most Silicon Valley of satirical memes, drinking the Kool-aid (someone in the film even says it).
Early on, Bailey has released a low powered, ultra-cheap camera he intends to see distributed far and wide across the world with a vision of promoting openness and accountability. As Mae says later during her high-powered town hall meeting-style presentation (again modelled on Apple); ‘secrets are lies’.
She decides to live it by wearing the special cameras 24/7, reporting on and sharing every moment of her life with everyone who cares to tune in. It’s no real surprise to know that it’s all going to go wrong, because unless you didn’t realise, the intent of the film’s theme is that everything Mae comes to believe is dangerously wrong – that there is a reason and a place for privacy, that technology’s continual encroachment on our lives is actually insidious and that dumb millennials who’ve grown up with phones in their hands can’t see it.
The story is okay enough even though there are no real surprises where any of it’s going to go. Eggers’ novel might be more interesting so long as it’s well written because he certainly has something to say, but the script and the direction are way too heavy handed about it, ham fisted pulpiteering about privacy, individualism and the charm of the old ways thundered down in every scene.
But the other fatal flaw is the performances. Tom Hanks can do almost anything (he didn’t even falter in “A Hologram For the King” – it was the story around him that sucked), and he can do this kind of thing in his sleep – he’s just not in it very much despite appearing so prominently in the marketing. Patton Oswalt as The Circle’s COO is also a pleasant surprise, exuding an air of menace we haven’t seen from him.
But the character of Mae’s friend/kind-of-romantic-interest Mercer is played by Ellar Coltrane, the kid we saw grow up in Boyhood and who nobody else seemed to realise at the time can’t act.
Then there’s Watson herself. If you saw Beauty and the Beast (and apparently everybody did) you saw glimpses of her trying and failing, but in “The Circle” she has no CGI clocks or candles, dance numbers, songs or wizarding to prop her up, and she’s just not that good an actress.
There’s a good movie somewhere about switching off and disconnecting, but this isn’t it.