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Front Page - Friday, May 5, 2017

Critic's Corner: Google ‘lame’ and you’ll get ‘The Circle’

“The Circle” is a movie with impeccable timing. Just one month after Congress and President Trump stirred an online hornet’s nest by repealing online privacy protections, the techno-thriller arrives in theaters with a story about an internet company that takes its government-granted freedoms to a harrowing extreme.

The privacy rules passed last year by the Federal Communications Commission would have required broadband companies to obtain permission from their customers to use their browsing history and other sensitive data to create targeted advertisements.

This apparently didn’t sit well with many elected officials, so they used the Congressional Review Act to overturn the regulations.

Being watched online is nothing new. Internet companies have been recording every keystroke and click for years. But this move comes at a time when people are becoming more concerned about protecting their privacy and worried that broadband businesses are being given unprecedented liberties.

Given the timeliness of the “The Circle” and the implications of the topics it explores, watching it should have done for social media what “Jaws” did for swimming in the ocean. But no. The movie has as much bite as a catfish.

“The Circle” is so limp, it could be used as a case study on how to make a bad film. Here’s how I’d break down the material:

Start with an interesting concept: Some films were doomed from the start. Others began with a great idea and then blew it. “The Circle” belongs in the second category.

Co-written by David Eggers based on his book of the same title, it follows a young customer service worker named Mae Holland as she climbs the ranks at an internet corporation called The Circle.

In time, Mae becomes the face of the company’s efforts to bring about full transparency by allowing every moment of her life to be broadcast live via the internet. “Knowing is good,” says Eamon Bailey, co-founder and head of The Circle. “Knowing everything is better.”

It’s a good line. And it promises a dark, cautionary tale about a malicious megacorporation bending humanity to its will as it becomes a Big Brother-style eye in the sky.

Unfortunately, it’s the movie’s only good line, and the filmmakers do absolutely nothing with it. Like a guy with a great pick-up line but no follow-through, “The Circle” is all downhill after: “What’s a nice moviegoer like you doing in a place like this?”

Squander your concept: “The Circle” asks several intriguing and relevant questions: Do we have a right to privacy in a world of ever-increasing danger? What would the cost of giving up our privacy in exchange for safety be? Would we be truly safe?

Then it answers none of them.

Worse, it doesn’t even try. Perhaps Egger’s goal as screenwriter was simply to demonize large internet companies by planting doubt and fear in the minds of the film’s audience. (I haven’t read his book, so I don’t know if he handles his themes in a more substantive way on the printed page.) But he needed to go further. It wasn’t enough for him to merely say, “Little person – good! Big company – bad!”

At a certain point, the filmmakers must have realized they were going nowhere and had nowhere to turn because “The Circle” just ends. I have never been more surprised to see credits pop up on the screen.

Waste a good cast: I was looking forward to seeing Tom Hanks in a villainous role. As Bailey, he’s the brains behind the all-seeing eye of the future. But instead of giving us an evil Hanks, Eggs and director James Ponsoldt use his good guy persona as a mask that fools the world into buying Bailey’s half-truths and lies.

This would have been OK – to a point. But “The Circle” never gives us that moment when Bailey’s human skin peels back to reveal him to be the snake in the garden. Instead, viewers must spend 99 percent of the movie assuming he’s the bad guy.

Hanks has remarkable range. But the producers of the film (which included Hanks!) wasted a delicious opportunity to let him be a villain.

They also waste John Boyega, who’s fresh off his role as Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Boyega has only a few minutes of screen time, as his character exists only to perform a single task – which he does off-screen.

It’s the kind of part typically assigned to a lesser known actor, but I guess STX Entertainment, the studio that made the movie, wanted to feature Boyega in its marketing materials.

I don’t know if Eggers and Ponsoldt wasted Emma Watson of “Harry Potter” fame or not. But I do know her performance could have been better. 

Direct it like a cable TV movie of the week: Watson’s performance brings me to one of the biggest problems with “The Circle”: Ponsoldt’s lackluster, clumsy direction.

For starters, it’s as though he didn’t know where to tell his actors to stand or what to do with their bodies. Watson suffers the worst of this. Her scenes on stage in the auditorium at The Circle made me shift uncomfortably in my seat. She just shuffles about the stage, hunched over and flinging her arms around like an actor in high school play.

Speaking of high school plays, Ellar Coltrane delivers the most amateurish performance I’ve seen since the “Twilight” movies as Mae’s ex-boyfriend. I couldn’t believe the scene in which he pleads with Mae to leave The Circle was included in the film. It made me cringe.

What’s more, “The Circle” has no visual bang beyond the text messages that pop up on the screen. Scenes are blocked like a television show and the camera is just sort of there, passively taking things in. This aspect of Ponsoldt’s direction isn’t bad; it’s workman-like.

Make the characters do things that make no sense: Watson’s Mae will likely go down as the most infuriating protagonist in a 2017 film. Again and again, she ignores neon-blinking, fog-horn blowing warning signs and drinks Bailey’s Kool-Aid without question – to the point of becoming his hand puppet.

I believe this had more to do with unimaginative writing than an attempt on Eggers part to make her a simpleton and a lackey.

Time and again, I found myself wondering why a character did this or didn’t do that. Bailey makes the biggest mistake of them all, not because he’s an idiot but because the screenplay told him to.

I went into “The Circle” hoping to see an intelligent, entertaining exploration of the issue of privacy in an age of growing connectivity. Instead, the film is utter pap. Don’t waste your time or money.

If you find the world of computers, video games and social media compelling, binge watch AMC’s remarkable dramatic television series “Halt and Catch Fire” instead. There are three seasons of ten episodes each to watch before season four arrives later this year, and any given hour is markedly better than “The Circle.”

One out of four stars