Tribeca 2017: ‘The Circle’ Is a Surprisingly Clumsy Mess

How did this many good people make a movie this bad?

You know who’s good at a Q&A? Tom Hanks. (No surprise, but still.) There’s a particular talent for taking even the most monotonous and wandering question/comments from an audience and rolling them into something thoughtful and profound, and Hanks and co-star Emma Watson were both in top form after last night’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere of The Circle (out Friday). So when an audience member asked Hanks to basically sum up the themes of the movie, and where he stands on its Big Ideas, he was up for it. “A future is coming towards us, and guess what?” he asked. “That future is gonna be one damn thing after another, and the only hope I think we can have is that the future is 51% good to only 49% evil, and somewhere in that remaining 2% will be the difference in the quality of our lives. But it seems to be in the hands of the participants.” It was a thoughtful, concise summary. Shame it’s so much smarter and clearer than the movie he’s in.

Hanks plays the head honcho of “The Circle,” a Silicon Valley tech company that’s like Facebook with generous dashes of Apple and Google: a social media giant; a big, rolling, activity-fileld “campus”; a genius who gives big, first-person presentations to roll out new products. Into that world walks Maggie (Emma Watson), who escapes her shitty job, shitty car, and shitty life by keying right in to the relentless positivity of their culty corporate culture. However, it turns out – you may need to sit down for this – all that information sharing and data mining might be for less-than-honorable purposes.

The Circle is based on the book of the same name by Dave Eggers, directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), who joined Eggers on the adaptation. Those are two names we trust; ditto Watson, Hanks, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt (who plays the Woz to Hanks’s Jobs), Glenne Headly, Karen Gillan, and the late Bill Paxton. I’m not quite sure how that many good people made a movie this bad, but here we are. Eggers was trying to ask big questions, about the value of privacy and the importance of government and private openness and transparency, but that’s all the movie seems capable of doing: asking questions, in strangely stiff dialogue scenes. Their conversations articulate themes, make proclamations, and mouth-piece ideas, rather than telling a story, creating tension, or provoking genuine thought.

Any actor would struggle putting that stuff across credibly, and Watson, sad to say, struggles mightily. She simply never manages to wrap her unsteady American accent around this painfully turgid dialogue, and Boyega doesn’t do much better (their scenes of flirtation would be so much hotter with their native accents, but I digress). Hanks and Hanks alone manages to sell the sloganeering (“I believe in the perfect ability of humanism”), probably because most of his scenes are pep-talk performance. You believe that he might or might not believe, but can certainly make his people believe. And there’s something just perfect about the way he says “We are so fucked” as he sips his coffee.

But otherwise, The Circle is a hot mess. Occasionally, there are flashes of the movie it could’ve been – a decent near-future social thriller, perhaps, or a tech company satire in the Silicon Valley mode (there’s one legitimately great scene, in which a pair of her Stepford Coworkers grill Watson relentlessly over her non-participation in “non-mandatory” corporate activities), or even a send-up of online armchair activism (“We have sent 180 million frowns from the US alone! I bet that is gonna have an effect on their regime”). And there are doses of other movies in there for good measure – computerized crime stuff that Minority Report did far more successfully, danger-of-secrets stuff that Sneakers did likewise. And its rough conclusion manages to feel like both a reshoot and a desperate editing job, at the same time. It’s a real waste, The Circle, but not to worry; everyone involved will go back to making good movies, and we’ll all forget this poor thing ever happened.

“The Circle” plays again today at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens Friday in wide release. Photo credits: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire.