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Review: "The Circle" with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson 

by Eric Blume

Director James Ponsoldt’s film version of the Dave Eggers novel The Circle features big ideas, a pulsating relevance, and ideal casting in its leading actress:  so why doesn’t it work? 

Eggers’ tale of a typical young American girl (Emma Watson) who gets a job at a Google-like tech company called The Circle, and promotes herself into living a life that’s “transparent” on-camera 24/7, has its finger on the pulse of our current concerns on social media, connectivity, and privacy...  

It’s a story very much in the now, and the screenplay, written jointly by Eggers and Ponsoldt, tackles huge universal contemporary concerns.  

The film attacks these concepts (the complexities of privacy, the meaning of democracy, the challenges of personal integrity) with both ferocity and timidity.  It’s a film that always keeps you on your toes, questioning, but the ideas are SO big that they feel jammed into the narrative without much complex examination.  Ponsoldt, a director of obvious intelligence and nerve, simply doesn’t have the skill to calibrate a canvas this wide and broad in under two hours.  A correlative would be The Social Network, a film similar in tone, visuals, and theme:  whereas a director as accomplished as David Fincher was able to laser-focus the tension, condense the action, and make the actors’ force rattle the screen, Ponsoldt seems to punt.  All of the action in The Circle feels truncated, a Cliffs Notes version of something meant to be explored more deeply, in a more disturbing manner.

Emma Watson couldn’t be a better choice for the lead role.  She has a natural authority, and her plain, beautiful face feels made for the camera.  She carries the picture effortlessly, and moment-to-moment, she’s expressive and honest.  But her character needs to make a few fairly huge transitions, and her character’s motivations feel forced and un-owned.  Watson has neither the support of the script nor the support of the director to transport her beyond those missed blanks.  You feel she could have fleshed out this character, but the film abandons her.  It feels rushed into “delivering” as a studio picture.  

As the two main officials of the company, Tom Hanks fairs fine, but Patton Oswalt both overplays and underplays his role, as if he’s confused whether he’s playing a villain or not.  Again, on the page, both of their roles feel undernourished:  they don’t have complexity, and you don’t even get the movie-movie satisfaction of watching them play corporate nasties.  

There’s nothing to be mad about with The Circle.  It’s a film made with decency, responsibility, and smarts.  But it lacks style and a point of view.  It feels like a delivered product, a movie that knows it will get you talking, but doesn’t make you face anything with any urgency and involvement.

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Reader Comments (7)

How was Ellar Coltrane? Do you see an acting career post-Boyhood?

May 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

I saw Ellar Coltrane in two movies at Tribeca (this and the Burt Reynolds movie called Dog Years) and I thought he was horrible - so abysmal he ripped me right out of the story - in the both of them. And neither are great shakes in the first place.

I didn't even realize it was the boy from Boyhood while watching Dog Years - I was just like, "Who the hell is this wooden actor that seems mildly familiar?" I saw The Circle second and so I was already on alert for him, but he was just as bad there.

Of course all that said I didn't like Boyhood in the first place.

May 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJason

James, it's true that Coltrane has very little to do in The Circle, and he doesn't really register. I thought his hazy dreaminess worked well in Boyhood, but I don't think there's a lot of versatility ahead from him.

May 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

Coltrane was not very good in The Circle; he was not credible and did not have any force in his acting. Nor was Emma Watson for that matter. She has one of two expressions on her face at all times. What I found laking in the movie was any kind of tension. Emma's character is extremely passive throughout, and there were no stakes (John Boyega's character tried to give some urgency, but they never explain what he found; also there are no stakes, repercussions or any sense of urgency in the third act, when they decide to expose everything).

May 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

James from Ames, Ellar Coltrane is absolutely dreadful in this movie. Dread. Ful. He was so bad that at one point I turned to my husband and whispered about just how awful I thought he was.

As for the film itself, despite touching on several relevant themes, it never goes far enough with any of them. It's very superficial and lacks nuance with respect to some of the more complex moral questions.

May 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

This is a shame to read as all of James Ponsoldt' previous work has been terrific.

May 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Watched this as well over the weekend, and I'll agree with the sentiment it almost works. Hanks and Watson are committed (I'd go as far as to calling this Watson's best work) and the story is interesting enough. But much like Hanks' Robert Langdon movies, the movie (pun intended) never comes full circle and I left feeling a little duped.

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

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