Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Reserved Seating: The Circle

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo that went fully transparent and all it took was a Beck concert.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino. This week, we’re discussing The Circle, the new film from James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour, The Spectacular Now). This techno-thriller stars Emma Watson as the newest customer service employee at a Google-esque social media behemoth run by Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt. While that may sound Fucking Awesome, Watson soon discovers that The Circle’s plans to connect everyone to everything everywhere come with harsh and unsavory implications for the future of our privacy, our politics, and...wait for it...our very lives.

Adam: In this clip, Watson’s character, Mae, is visited by her friend (maybe ex-boyfriend?) Mercer (played by Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) on The Circle’s insulated campus after she innocently posted a picture of one of his antler chandeliers (I’m not making this up), which has caused a backlash for her off-the-grid peer.

This scene positions one of the film’s ideas about how some people are more willing to embrace The Circle (i.e. a connected...everything) and some would like to be left to their own devices, no pun intended. This clip is interesting because it represents the movie’s strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are more apparent, especially the utterly mystifying shot selection and often stilted performances and dialogue. On the other hand, some of it is so goofy that I’m (and I’m probably alone in this) believe that the movie is being satirical. This scene is endlessly watchable and I think the rest of the movie is, too, even though I know objectively it is not good.

Rob: Look, Adam. I want you to like what you like, and I support you in all of your endeavors. Truly, I do. But The Circle is easily the worst mainstream release I’ve seen in 2017. The filmmaking is almost absurdly sloppy, with scenes beginning and ending seemingly at random. The tone-deaf screenplay forces quality actors into exchanges that make it seem as though they’ve never interacted with another human before (ironic for this subject matter), and the script’s profound political messages feel like they were penned by a high school freshman who just learned that the internet could hypothetically be used for evil. It’s a massive failure that feels like it was either noted to death by studio executives or butchered in the edit by someone who had some sort of grudge. I like Ponsoldt as a director and Dave Eggers as a writer, but this film was not crafted by a group of people with a vision — it was assembled by a soulless conglomerate not all that dissimilar from the fictional one it focuses on. The kind of soulless conglomerate that thinks the twenty-somethings of 2017 are super into Beck.

As for the satirical element: I agree that it wants to be satirical, but I don’t believe it pulls it off.

Adam: The kids like Beck. If you grant them an outdoor Beck concert, they will bend to your will. And the company has its own G-D’s eye device! In other words, I get the allure. This actually could be a Ramsey prequel pretty easily.

I don’t think the movie is as cynically constructed as you do. I just think it went off the rails and they couldn’t figure it out so they threw up their hands and released it (I know it was subject to reshoots and delays). I’m going to go through your points now. One, this is so not the worst mainstream release of 2017. I’ve seen The Comedian. I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell. I’ve seen Free Fire. All of these movies deny you a so-bad-it’s-watchable experience and The Circle is fascinating. There are so many ideas on display in this movie and there is no conflict or thesis. It’s kind of a miracle of a script. Certain characters go from A to M with no connective tissue (I’m looking at you, Karen Gillan) or just make absolutely no sense whatsoever (e.g. John Boyega, who is left to do “special projects” like staging insurrections???). You don’t get that in a normal bad movie. This is a special film. The more I think about it, the more I know it’s my cause for 2017, like Draft Day in 2014 and The Intern in 2015. I think I just forgive any movie where someone is at work??? I have no defense. I love The Circle. I’m sorry.
I’m bummed that this movie happened to James Ponsoldt, who has made two films I really like quite a bit and I’m worried this will blackball him for a while. Maybe it’s a case of an indie director who decided to stretch in scale and we just witnessed that he’s more of a personal drama director. I’ve not read the book version of The Circle (written by Dave Eggers of A Hologram for the King, which was also translated into a Tom Hanks movie that only I like), but from checking out the plot summary on Wikipedia it sounds like a more cohesive story that was jettisoned in editing after the film was shot. I think the movie should be commended for a few things, though (non-ironically), which I’ll get into a little bit later.

Rob: It really feels like a too-many-cooks situation. Still, I support your on-brand defense of this trainwreck. Hell, I can’t even say I didn’t have fun with it; I know we generally frown upon ironic hipster douchbaggery around here, but I had a great time laughing my ass off at this movie.

Let me just rant a bit: The Circle breaks so many basic rules of storytelling, but my major issue is the complete lack of interiority from the characters, especially Mae. In a film that hinges on the contrast between the Future of Technological Togetherness and the ulterior political motives harbored by its leaders (as well as the apparent heel-face-turn Watson is meant to take), the complete lack of humanity on display is almost offensive. Aren’t I meant to see the difference between real people like Mercer and The Circle’s mindless automatons? Because I didn’t.

I mean, you’ve got Tom Freaking Hanks, America’s dad, and you don’t leverage that Aw Shucks sweetness even a little bit? He’s so clearly evil from the outset that I spent the entire running time just waiting for Watson to figure it out! We’re never given an opportunity to see these characters truly vulnerable, to get a sense of what they actually want and need as opposed to what they’re putting out for The Circle (a contrast that might have created some tension and social commentary!) I thought that was sorely missed in a film trying to show that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; it’s fun to watch a pseudo-Steve Jobs write “Secrets Are Lies” on a big screen and have a crowd of Kool-Aid drinkers eat it up, but we’re so lacking a true point-of-view that we never know whether our hero sees the same Doublespeak we do.

Plus, why the hell was Mae randomly kayaking at night? I mean sure, it’s catalyst for the next act of the story, but why was she there? And boy, did it break my heart to see Bill Paxton so underused, not to mention John Boyega’s aforementioned off-screen insurrections to which we are NEVER privy. I’m still so frustrated by this film.
Adam: Ok, look, I agree with you a lot about The Circle, but not about Tom Hanks. His performance and his casting are inspired. I don’t know how you can’t see that he playing his role as regular, affable Tom Hanks is satirical. He’s convincing his minions (all of whom are also brilliantly rendered as twenty-something and easily corruptible because they probably don’t know how any other company operates) to do terrible things because they’re drinking the Kool-Aid of a charismatic leader. Who is more charismatic than “America’s dad” Tom Hanks?

I think so much of the satire in this movie is a critique of millennials. They are shown bitingly in this movie as being empty, easily manipulated and corruptible. For example, when Emma Watson’s character goes transparent and broadcasts her life, she is followed by her own feed of commenters who are watching her every waking minute with the most banal feedback and insight imaginable. Also, Mae is catapulted from customer service representative to basically being on the board of directors because she’s gone from empty vessel to more and more insulated and power hungry. I agree that the shift is choppy (again, with the night kayaking as a catalyst), but the scene where she is basically creating a new government in the boardroom that is very rapidly going from a goal of convenience to totalitarian state is hilarious and not in a strictly ironic way; more in an “I can see this actually happening” type of way. I’m sure meetings like this occur in the fucking White House right now. If I had one specific criticism of that, though, it's that the movie is too late. We live in a post-satire world now. It’s sad that this movie isn’t as ridiculous as it should be.

I also think the movie is correct in how a corporation can insinuate itself into your entire life. Just look at the health care The Circle provides to the Bill Paxton character. If Emma Watson balks at The Circle, he loses that. There are tons of instances you see this in real life where someone stays at a bad company because they are dependent on company benefits.

You mentioned some of the other performances,so I want to make sure to cover that real quickly. It’s very sad seeing Bill Paxton on screen so soon after his passing. He gives a good, sweet performance and an interesting movie I think (maybe more interesting than this one) could have been made about a father watching his daughter get corrupted by corporate culture. Also, we need to talk about Ellar Coltrane. His character is so bone-headedly written that I ended up laughing my ass off when he was on screen. Filmmakers, you can have someone be doubtful about technology and not turn him basically into the Unabomber, building antler chandeliers in his remote shack or whatever it was. I had fun imagining that this was just where his character from Boyhood wound up.
Rob: Let me clarify a few things: I ABSOLUTELY agree that casting Hanks and Oswalt in these roles is inspired. My issue is that they’re never given enough time to really flesh out that satirical edge. We don’t get to see them alone. We don’t get to see them manipulating others so that we can really contrast Mae’s perspective. We don’t get to see their real destructive power. I also agree with you that the film is largely successful in its deconstruction of mindless millennial corporate structure: my two favorite scenes are the quick-fire interview and the “you never post about kayaking!” exchange. Weirdly enough, they’re the only two moments in which the film feels like it has a point of view and understands people. But that’s mostly it. Rather than delving deeper into the nonsensical world it introduces, it presents Mercer’s “off the grid” character as the contrast to Mae’s corruption and it just falls completely flat. Mercer is just the goddamn worst. And I’m with you that the film doesn’t go to the ridiculous extremes that it should. Were that the case, it might have worked. Despite all this, I think we largely agree on this one. It’s just that for whatever reason, The Circle put joy in your heart and hate in mine. #JusticeforMercer

Adam: Yes, always justice for Mercer. Just curious, did you see A Hologram for the King?

Rob: I have not.

Adam: I’m starting to dig this weird period of Hanks’ career. I don’t like some of the movies he’s doing (Sully, Inferno), but these two Dave Eggers adaptations are interesting and they probably would never have gotten made without Hanks backing them. He’s like in his late-career Vince Carter mode right now.

I’m voting Mark Off for The Circle. I enjoy it in a way that I can’t understand, but it’s more a bad movie than a good movie and it’s the type of thing I would never genuinely recommend to Mark Ahn. It’s just the most goddamned movie I’ve seen in a very long time. I can’t wait to own it and tell no one to go see it. It’s like the Fyre Festival of movies.

Rob: I’ll add Hologram to the list because I agree that he’s making interesting choices lately. Does it also have his Playtone vanity card at the top? I loved that. I want to reiterate that I really like the idea of The Circle and these characters, but I don’t think the execution was there at all. It’s dry, flat, and awkward. I’m definitely voting Mark Off. I might revisit it as a fun bad movie, though, and I’ll think of you every time.

Adam: Hologram is indeed a Playtone joint. I like it, in part because it’s the only movie I can really remember where Hanks isn’t playing someone in control or in an authoritative, erudite capacity. It’s an interesting look for him. When I visit you later this year, we are going to get some booze and watch The Circle. That’s just going to happen. Do you know what you want to review next week?

Rob: It looks like a lot of studios bailed on next week to get out of the way of Guardians Vol. 2. We might have to wait until the following week for Arthur: Legend of Whatever. You have any ideas?

Adam: We could review The Dinner with Richard Gere. Or Norman: Moderate Rise & Tragic Fall of a NY Fixer with Richard Gere. Or Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary in honor of Mercer. I bet no one will comment on or read any of those! We can say really shitty things and no one will ever know.

Rob: Isn’t that the dream? Let’s go with one of the Richard Gere choices. I’ve got a few gerbil jokes, so most of the review will sort of just write itself.

Adam: I read that he’s only doing indies nowadays because no studio will release a movie he appears in due to his personal politics and activism and the counterpoint of Hollywood needing China box office more than ever. It’s really interesting and sad how the world is closing in on itself. But that’s a conversation for another time and place that’s not a site for movie lovers. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. There is no movie this year (so far) that I am as upset to see fail as I am The Circle. All the ingredients are there for greatness from a talent perspective, but my understanding is it actually IS a victim of poor source material. :(

  2. Rob mentioned laughing and describes this movie as fun. I see this becoming a stealth comfort movie for him

  3. That was a lively discussion! I kind of want to see this now.

    "utterly mystifying shot selection" was exactly what I was thinking. That, and wanting to punch those bystanders filming.

  4. Sounds like the movie (which I haven't seen) is like the book (which I did read) in some ways. In that it attempts satire and mostly fails; tries to comment on the dangers of life online but doesn't say anything new; uses a bland empty vessel as a protagonist; yet somehow remains interesting enough and weird enough to stick with to the end.

  5. Is this the movie I have been waiting for?! Did Tom "take no risks" Hanks step out of his greater than thou shoes and FINALLY play a villain who is not redeemed in someway? If so, I will be forced to watch this.

    1. Nice try Chaybee. No one dislikes Tom Hanks.

    2. This guy does -

    3. (Slaps forehead). Thanks for the laugh bud. I'm gonna go get a frittata now. Have a great weekend :-)

  6. How can a strong cast create such underwhelming results? So disappointing.

  7. I dare anyone to watch that clip and tell me Emma Watson is a talented actress. That is high school play-level awful.

    1. I think she's naturally charismatic and very watchable in other movies. The Circle isn't a good barometer since it makes most of its actors seem kind of bad.

    2. Serious question: is it because you find her attractive or have had a crush on her as an actress? Because I do not think she has any screen presence whatsoever. She was also the weakest part of that Beauty and The Beast movie, because she's completely bereft of charisma and was simply drowning in CGI.

      She hit the lottery at a young age with those Harry Potter movies. But she has done nothing afterwards to prove to me that she has the quintessential "it" that will deliver her a long and lauded career as a film actress. I don't think she'll be working in five years to tell you the truth. She has no range aside from furrowing her brow to convey emotion.

    3. She's good in the Harry Potter movies, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Bling Ring. I think it's a little weird I have to prove I like her outside of her physical appearance to justify my previous comment.

    4. I dare anyone to deliver that dialogue and sound like a talented actor.

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