Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Circle

3.5/4

Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, John Boyega, Glenne Headley, Bill Paxton, Patton Oswalt

Rated PG-13 for a Sexual Situation, Brief Strong Language and Some Thematic Elements involving Drug Use

It is rare that a single performance can elevate a mediocre film into a great one.  Oh sure, there have been movies where the lead performance has dominated the film: Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth," Sean Penn in "Milk," or Charlize Theron in "Monster."  But those films were already great; the tremendous lead performances simply made it better.  Not so with "The Circle."  Without Emma Watson, this would be a mediocre movie.  But with her, it's a great one.

Millenial Mae (Watson) is working as a customer service temp when her friend Annie (Gillan) calls her and says that she arranged for her to get an interview at the social media giant The Circle.  Mae nails the interview and is thrilled when she gets the job offer.  The Circle is everyone's dream job; it's a cross between a college campus and a city, with a six digit salary.  However, when some of her co-workers start prying into her privacy, she gets unnerved.  She grows increasingly uncomfortable (and isolated) when an accident gets her thrust into the international spotlight.  Now, she has to find a way to stay sane amid the increasingly threatening lack of privacy, and if possible, stop the madness.

Probably the best thing about this movie is finding a new angle on the "privacy vs. security" debate.  Films have been covering this debate since the Cold War, but it's never been more relevant than in films made after 9/11.  This debate has turned into a cliché of modern war movies and political thrillers.  But by using the world of social media, it breathes life into the debate, and director James Ponsoldt creates a credible scenario where the actions of The Circle and the behavior of the characters are chillingly credible.  I defy anyone to sit through this movie and not feel increasingly uncomfortable.

However, this film wouldn't be anywhere near as effective as it is without the performance of Emma Watson.  Her character is not well written, but because of some of the choices she makes, she saves her and the film.  On paper, she's a sucker blinded by fame and idealism who gets a serious reality check.  But Watson doesn't play the role straight.  She's too smart for that.  Instead, she adds an ironic undercurrent that no one around her gets.  Watch Watson's eyes and how she hesitates before speaking.  Mae is well-aware of what's going on, and she hopes that her ridiculous ideas and actions will wake people up.  But things don't work out the way she anticipates and often with tragic results.

Her co-stars are either underwritten, boring, or more likely, both.  Tom Hanks is too genial for this role.  He should have made the character too friendly, thus making him much more sinister.  Karen Gillan is great, but she's in too little of the film to make much of an impact.  I suspect that the scenes addressing her drug use were cut to avoid a teen-unfriendly R rating.  Ellar Coltrane is uneven; the "Boyhood" star has some nice moments, but usually he blends into the furniture.  Patton Oswalt and John Boyega have nothing to do.  This film will be forever known as the final film of Bill Paxton, who plays Mae's MS-stricken father.  It's a good performance, but that's it.

The negative reception of the film surprises me.  Did no one pick up on Watson's subtle choices in her performance?  I guess not, but I did.  She anchors the film, and makes it much more disturbing.  Perhaps if the screenplay was written in a like-minded, ironic way.  Then maybe people would have gotten the message.  I also don't think the ending works.  It wants to add a catharsis to a situation that doesn't have one, and thus feels half-baked.

Still, I highly recommend this dramatic thriller.