Tom Hanks starred in an adaptation of Dave Eggers’s book “A Hologram for the King” last year, and now he stars again in a film version of an Eggers novel called “The Circle,” an over-the-top and implausible story that tries to be “timely” and “relevant” but mainly hits us over the head with absurd situations.
Emma Watson plays the heroine Mae, a sweet-faced girl (with Aaron Copland music as the ringtone on her phone) who is suffering in a bad job at a water company where she has to try to calm down angry people all day. Mae’s father Vinnie (the late Bill Paxton, in his last film role) is suffering from muscular dystrophy, and he can’t get his insurance to pay for the care he needs. And so Mae is a vulnerable target for The Circle, a vast tech and social media company run by Eamon Bailey (Hanks) like a cult.
There is a vague attempt to make The Circle seem like a semi-hip sort of place when Mae is asked “fun” questions at her job interview like “Paul or John?” (She answers, “Early Paul, late John.”) When asked, “Joan Baez or Joan Crawford?” our heroine shows her independent mind by answering “Joan Didion” instead. This is the sort of working environment where Beck plays concerts on the premises to keep the employees happy and keep them from going home.
There is a superficial smartness to the early scenes in “The Circle” that soon gives way to very obvious plot manipulations. Mae isn’t working very long for the company before she is approached by two of her fellow workers who browbeat her into giving up more of her privacy and signing up for more group activities, which they stress are “Just for fun!” and “Optional!” This is the scene where “The Circle” really dives off the deep end into exaggeration; surely these two colleagues would be able to manipulate Mae in a far more subtle manner.
The main problem with “The Circle” is that the evil of the tech company is made so obvious right from the start. It would be far more effective and more troubling if The Circle and its leaders were seductive and attractive and had some good points to make, but they are so ridiculously wrong-headed that Mae seems pretty dim to fall for them.
Mae goes out kayaking and almost drowns, but she is saved because her every movement is being monitored by the company. This convinces her to go “fully transparent,” which means that she puts on a camera that monitors her at every moment and can be seen by all Circle members. (The only time she gets any privacy is when she goes to the toilet.)
Hanks’s Bailey convinces Mae that she is better off and likely to be a better person if she is being observed at all times, and yet the obvious connection to religion or lack of it is not made here. You might expect Eggers to at least mention that the thought of God watching and judging us used to influence a good deal of human behavior, but that is outside his purview here. Both Hanks and Patton Oswalt, who plays a second-in-command at the company, seem to be having trouble taking their villainous roles seriously, and Watson is unable to make the various changes that happen to Mae convincing.
Mae serenely accepts her new “fully transparent” way of life, and director James Ponsoldt (“The End of the Tour”), who wrote the screenplay with Eggers, surrounds his female star visually with thought bubbles from all around the world that are mainly friendly and all seemingly from lonely people. These floating internet comments are fairly accurate when it comes to some of what gets said online, but most negativity and cruelty seems to have been edited out of them, and that certainly doesn’t represent what online life is like in full.
In the last third of the film, something very bad happens that is very much Mae’s fault, and yet Watson displays no anger and no guilt about it, and her behavior in the final scenes barely makes any sense. “The Circle” takes a valid concern about lack of privacy in the Internet age and turns it into a hyperbolic and finally laughable melodrama.