‘The Circle’ Mini-Review

In the latest Substandard, I ranted about anti-science foodies and JVL lectured me on how all techno-thrillers ever made have been amazingly good while Vic regaled us with stories of his A-plus parenting. We spent a lot of time talking about The Circle, though, and I wanted to expand on some of my thoughts about it below. So, after the podcast (to which you can subscribe and leave a review here; if you don't leave a review, Luke Skywalker will blow up another government office building), I'll have some more thoughts on The Circle, almost certainly the worst major film that will be released this year.

OK, so, I laid out my major complaint with The Circle, at length, for the Washington Post. Long story short, the book doesn't lend itself to the tech-thriller mold; rather, it should've been a viciously satirical mockery of the cult-like nature of Silicon Valley and radical transparency activists. This movie should've been made by Mike Judge or a time-traveling-from-the-1980s Terry Gilliam, not The Guy Who Made The Spectacular Now.

But that's just the big picture problem with The Circle, which is a shockingly bad piece of work. There are so many other, smaller problems! Today, we'll focus on the acting. Or, perhaps more accurately, the casting.

Just some brief plot background before I get going: The Circle focuses on the efforts of Mae (Emma Watson) to fit in at a tech company with totalitarian aspirations—think Google, Facebook, and PayPal all in one gigantic Northern California complex—and the ways that radical transparency (basically, living life on a webcam) can impact one's perception of others and the self.

Watson herself is a problem: While she has her strengths—she's quite good as the dagger-eyed Hermione in the Harry Potter films and amusingly oblivious as the rich thief Nicki in The Bling Ring—but is somewhat out of her depth as Mae, whose internal struggle defines the central tension of the film.

But Watson delivers a Brando-esque performance compared to Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mae's ex-boyfriend, the anti-tech Mercer. Coltrane is best known as the boy from Boyhood, and the overabundance of critical praise heaped upon that sodden mess of a movie rested on the ability to embrace its gimmicky nature (It took 12 years to make!) and look past the fact that the central character whose growth we are tracking is portrayed by a null set. It felt unfair to heap scorn upon Coltrane for making that film—a brave gig for him to go on with, given that director Richard Linklater roped him into the project at such a young age—and I really, really hate savaging actors (if you prick them, do they not bleed?) in general, but he's just a black hole of charisma. The Circle slams to a stop when he's onscreen.

Patton Oswalt, meanwhile, is all wrong as Stenton, a shark in a suit who is meant to represent the bloodless capitalism of Silicon Valley's late stage decadence. This should have been a Patrick Bateman-type character—dark Italian wool, crisply pressed, with piercing eyes that turn the blood cold—instead of a kinda sorta schlubby dude who squints a lot. Again, there's a lot of stuff Patton Oswalt is very good in (Big Fan and Justified leap to mind), but this is not one of those things. He just looks wrong for the part.

John Boyega, meanwhile, plays a visionary tech genius who built The Circle's code from the ground up. For some reason, Boyega does not swing his arms when he walks in this movie. I don't understand if this is a natural affect of his or if he, like, saw some nerds at a Star Wars event shambling about in a comically unathletic way and decided, "Yes, this is how ‘dorks' move. I shall become like them." The character he plays, Ty, doesn't really make much sense except to serve as Mae's conscience and the film's deus ex machina (almost literally, since he lives underground near the machinery). I have a hard time holding that against the film or the actor, though, since the character of Ty was also a problem in Eggers' book.

And Tom Hanks as Bailey, the public face of the company and the ultimate idealist, is … actually just about right. Almost. It's close. There's a version of Tom Hanks that nails the obtusely idealistic transparency activist, and that's almost what we get in The Circle. The problem is, the role isn't written very well—Bailey needed to be more over the top, more obsessed with openness, more haplessly committed to his insane ideal that everyone should know everything about everyone. The Bailey of the film is just kind of … conniving. He should've been oblivious.

Karen Gillan as the peppy, overworked Annie is actually pretty much perfect, even though the character is woefully underwritten. And Bill Paxton as Mae's father—who suffers from MS—is also quite capable in his small role. So it wasn't all bad, I guess.

Just, you know. Mostly. Almost completely.