You’d think that Tom Hanks would have thought twice about acting in another film based on a novel penned by Boston-born author Dave Eggers, whose success as a writer has yet to translate well from books to screenplays. Just last year, the beloved actor starred in Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer’s adaptation of Eggers’ 2012 novel A Hologram for the King. I’d be surprised if you’ve even heard of it, since nobody saw it. And not without reason—it wasn’t especially good. But at least Hanks made the confounding comic drama watchable, and I can’t accuse him of doing the same for The Spectacular Now director James Ponsoldt’s crack at adapting Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle. This time, Eggers has co-written the screenplay with his director, but Hanks has taken a supporting role here, leaving us with Emma Watson in the lead.
The Harry Potter actress is enjoying one hell of a spring, thanks to the smash success of Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, so it’s probably a good thing that few will see her role here as Mae Holland, who’s thrilled to be offered an entry-level job as a “Customer Experience Representative” answering calls and online queries at the sprawling Bay Area campus of the Circle, a company that’s equal parts Apple, Google and Facebook. Sprinkle in a dose of Big Brother, and it gradually becomes clear that this tale is Eggers’ 21st-century take on Orwell’s 1984.
And yet, Eggers’ story is so gosh-darn alarmist and out-of-touch that it feels like it could have been written in 1984, a decade before the internet really began to take hold with the populace. This is the type of film that will terrify your grandmother into never using Facebook again, but it will be laughable to nearly everyone else, especially given the massive tonal shifts brought about by Mae’s ever-changing motivations. First, she’s suspicious of her new company’s invasions of her privacy. But after the screenplay briefly turns her into a kayak-stealing criminal who nearly drowns during a nighttime paddle into the bay, she’s taken into the inner sanctum of the Circle’s founder, Eamon Bailey (Hanks), who forgives her transgression while convincing her to begin wearing a camera on her chest and “go transparent” by broadcasting her life online, 24/7. If 1998’s The Truman Show (or even 1999’s EDtv) hadn’t trod this territory first, it may have been slightly interesting, especially with Hanks doing a great job of inverting his usual charming persona, smarming it up as a man he plays as Steve Jobs by way of Tony Robbins.
When Hanks is standing on stage during his company’s Dream Friday presentations, the Circle’s weekly campus pep rallies-cum-product launches, the film has an energy that’s lacking during most of the scenes featuring only Watson, who can barely maintain a convincing American accent. Even worse are the scenes that call on her to act opposite her childhood friend Mercer (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) or the mysterious Ty Lafitte (Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ John Boyega). Much of their dialogue is delivered while their backs are turned toward the camera, and it appears that their words in these moments have been dubbed into the film during post-production; Ponsoldt clearly didn’t get what he needed on set. Whether this is due to the relative inexperience of these young actors, a director who’s almost wholly wrong for this brand of alarmist satire or both, the resulting film is still as wrongheaded as 2014’s Men, Women & Children, a cautionary tale about the Evils of the Internet, or even their earliest antecedent, 1995’s The Net, a downright goofy cyber thriller starring Sandra Bullock.
By the time Mae delivers her Big Speech at the end, we’re no longer sure if we should be rooting for her or condemning her, since the movie’s messages have become so confused and her personality has changed from scene to scene. Even her parents (played by Glenne Headly and the late, great Bill Paxton in one of his final roles) can’t seem to make much sense of what’s driving her. No longer willing to have their lives broadcast across the web as part of her transparency experiment, they eventually stop talking to her altogether.
But leave it to old pro Hanks to deliver the last word: “We are so fucked.” Perhaps he should make note of this before he considers signing on for a third Eggers adaptation.
The Circle *1/2
Starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Nate Corddry, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on the novel by Eggers. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.