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The Circle

April 28, 2017
The Circle

I was excited when I went to see The Circle. Based on the novel by McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers, directed by James Ponsoldt, and featuring a stellar cast in roles I just knew they could knock out of the park, I’d been looking forward to it for months.

I could definitely see how Eggers’ book would attract Ponsoldt, who has always told stories about people with unhealthy and sometimes destructive habits. His first three features all dealt with alcoholism, including Smashed, among the finest examples of the form. His most recent was The End of the Tour, adapting David Lipsky’s memoir about a road trip of sorts with David Foster Wallace, for the 10th anniversary edition of whose magnum opus Eggers wrote the forward in 2006. Even when I didn’t care for the movie itself, I could respect the craft that went into The Spectacular Now. This was bound to be good.

But then I started watching. And one scene landed awkwardly. And another one felt forced and rushed. And another one felt unmotivated and convenient. I tried to reassure myself, of course a two-hour movie has to cut something from a five-hundred-page novel. It might not have the wonderful character development, or the thematic resonances, or the unexpectedly perfect literary structures. But surely it would at least get the overall feel and idea of the novel, right? It might be flawed, but it must still be at least passable.

I held out hope as long as possible, but I slowly came to the realization: this is a bad movie. Yes, the basics of the story are in place — Mae Holland (Emma Watson), with help from her old friend Annie Allerton (Karen Gillan), gets a job in The Circle, a mashup of Google, Facebook, Apple, and every other utopian Silicon Valley behemoth you can think of — but the similarities run thin. Mae is at first skeptical of The Circle’s share-everything ethos, as in the novel, but the person she meets who shares her suspicions (John Boyega) quickly reveals his identity. In the original it was a mystery that dragged out much longer, and even if the reader could probably guess it earlier, the question helped drive much of Mae’s evolving opinions.

Speaking of which, there’s none to speak of. We slam right from Mae feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to participate in on-campus activities and online Circle interactions — which are far from mandatory, but from which her absence keeps raising questions — into her embracing the radical openness espoused by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the charismatic Steve Jobs-esque CEO.

In contrast, Eggars’ novel guides the reader through this evolution smoothly enough that even if you don’t personally buy Bailey’s arguments and Mae’s rationalizations, you can at least see their appeal. The adaptation lacks all this nuance, allowing The Circle to become yet another example of the superficially-happy dystopias that form the settings of so many young-adult-targeted movies.

And even as Eamon’s plans with his co-founder and COO, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), are revealed, life in The Circle never takes on a darker, more threatening, or even dystopian tone. It’s bad because well obviously they’re the bad guys, but we never feel trapped within a system that’s growing to encompass more and more of our lives, that scares us as much to leave it as to stay. This goes right down into the score, which opts for a poppy Danny Elfman vibe where it really needs something closer to Cliff Martinez’ queerly edgy sensibility.

We do at least get some sense of those who remain skeptical, in the form of Mae’s parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) and a childhood friend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). But again they feel poorly integrated into the central plot of Mae’s life at The Circle — not that we really get the feel of life at The Circle in this adaptation — and their arguments feel less like real misgivings and more like cheap knee-jerk Luddism. None of it jells into an effective statement, much less a serious attempt to wrestle with the real changes being wrought on our society by the rise of social media.

But the most galling change is the wholesale replacement of the dénouement. Everything after the climactic sequence — which of course is itself tweaked to take off its edge — is replaced by something far more pedestrian and audience-friendly than the thematic genius of Eggers’ novel. The only thing that surprised me more than the way his story was mangled was to see that he himself, along with Ponsoldt, did the mangling.

Maybe it’s not entirely fair to judge an adaptation that tries to squeeze a decently hefty novel into a single feature’s running time. But is is more than a mere abridgment; the whole texture of the work has been squeezed out, and the central ideas have been reduced almost to the point of self-parody. World-class actors struggle mightily with clunky, expositional monologues, which are all the script has time for anyway. And no matter how pretty cinematographer Matthew Libatique makes it look, it’s clear that the soul of The Circle did not survive the transition to the screen.

As a bit of a postscript: while most of the cast do at least a decent job, Paxton is the only one who is really fantastic, for as little as he’s given to do. It’s a shame for him to go out on this one, but he still manages to remind us here just how great his talent was.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: close, but fail.

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