Movie Review: “The Circle” is a cautionary tale too on-the-money to write off

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I caught “The Circle” after the tepid heat of its weak opening weekend, after the first wave of overwhelmingly negative reviews. And I didn’t have to read those reviews to pick up on what turned people off to this ambitious, flawed effort from the talented director James Ponsoldt (“Off the Black,” “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now”).

There are lapses in logic, conveniences in this adaptation of a Dave Eggers novel about a young customer service rep who becomes the ground-breaking public face of an Internet-eating, many-tentacled social media empire.

Come on, even if she looked and came off as the smart, cute and sensitive Emma Watson, that’s a promotion that no corporate culture would stand for, much less let out of its control.

Characters exist out of an inorganic expediency, and aren’t given their due as flesh and blood people caught in the maw of the no privacy age.

But damn it, there’s value here, laced all through this cautionary fable about the cult of “Information should be free,” that the world, and those who people it, shouldn’t have anything to hide, so “No Secrets Allowed.” It’s smarter than its Tomatometer suggests, than many critics are letting on.

Take the depiction of the culture Mae (Watson), a working class college grad with a crummy custumer service job with a local water company, plunges into.

The Circle is “the chaos of the web made simple.” It’s where you can interact with friends in all manner of ways, pay your bills, make your purchases, network and so on, one-stop shopping for all your Internet/social media needs.

And the campus where this vast “Circle” is set up is just as all-encompassing. It’s a vast playground, with all-consuming work schedules, seemingly benevolent day care and health care and employee concerts (Beck!), parties and social and self-help and support groups, where everything interpersonal is just a “metric.” It’s exactly the way we’ve been shown Google, Apple and Facebook are set up.

From the outside-the-box job interview questions — “Sushi or soylent?” “Joan Baez or Joan Crawford?” “Quality or Convenience?” — to the bubbly, overly-concerned, over-sharing/over-knowing YOUR business co-workers, there’s something very Big Brother about it all.

But since Big Brother, in this case, the CEO, is a friendly first-name-basis boss played by Mr. Every Decent American Tom Hanks, we figure Big Brother is a benevolent dictator.

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So when the company knows entirely too much about Mae’s family  — her father (the late Bill Paxton) has multiple sclerosis and her mother (Glenne Headley) can’t afford the best treatment for him — Mae can only be mollified by the sudden, generous and life-saving gestures that her new employer makes to her and to her parents.

Still, we’ve seen the girl is a bit of a loner. She likes solitary trips, kayaking, and chose to distance herself from her down-to-Earth ex-boyfriend (Ellar Coltrane of “Boyhood”). The pill-popping, perky pal who got her the job (Karen Gillan, Nebula of “Guardians of the Galaxy”) may not acknowledge them, but Mae should be seeing warning signs. And laughing about the company’s plans to ingratiate itself more fully into global culture, to erode privacy further, is no way to impress the higher ups.

One of them (Patton Oswalt) at least, the Chief Operating Officer, has more than a hint of super-villain about him. And there’s something about Hanks’ creepy smile here that reminds one of Steve Jobs, or any number of famous Scientologists — a charming, disarming invitation to be on your guard.

Anyone addicted to social media (guilty) will get chills over each evolution of The Circle’s mission, each of them amounting to a mass surrender of more privacy, a mass abdication of more of democracy to a faceless, secretive for-profit corporation. They’re not subtle, and Eggers, in naming such transitions “SeeChange” and the like, tags this world at cultish, Scientology without the pyramid scheme.

John Boyega of the “Star Wars” franchise makes no impression as a mysterious colleague whose ties go back to the founding of the company, and who isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid any longer. Watson’s Mae isn’t the savviest character, and that would have flown in the face of our general impression of Harry Potter’s clever gal-pal, Hermione. Still, she’s had nude photos she shot on her phone and let into the cloud come out. We know even smart cookies, especially the young ones, are slow to awaken to the danger of all this destruction of privacy.

And there are moments that will burn in, that you might remember every time you log on. Cyber-stalking in real time, cameras everywhere, World Wide Web Witchhunts streaming for all to see and participate in is something we should all fear.

The comments/threatening emails assault facing anyone based on selective exposure on the web can be savage, cruel and wholly unjustified.

No, we haven’t abdicated all our rights and given up all our common sense, as the movie sometimes suggests. But in an era of voyeurism-inviting web celebrities, fake news disrupting the legitimate news cycle and organizations built on finding impartial truth, the paranoia underlined, high-lighted and foot-noted by an over-reaching satire like “The Circle” seems more unreasonably “reasonable” by the minute.

And the movie about this multi-front assault on our basic humanity, for all its weaknesses, is too important to skip.

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MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use
Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Bill Paxton, Glenne Headley, Ellar Coltrane
Credits: Written and directed by James Ponsoldt, co-written by Dave Eggers, based on his novel. An STX release.
Running time:

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