At Its Best, ‘The Circle’ Is a Cringeworthy, Condescending Clusterf–k

Originally published Apr. 28th, 2017 on thedistantcloseup.com

On television, satire proves its vital significance every weeknight through comedians like Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert – or on Sundays, for all of you Last Week Tonight fans who either subscribe to the channel’s YouTube page or ‘borrow’ a friend’s HBO Now account. Whatever’s going on in the world, you can guarantee that something outside the bounds of rationality and comprehension will occur, and these comedians, with their writing teams, will labor away to thoroughly lambaste them.

All satire must abide by a sweet spot of relevance, lest it be judged for being too slow or preaching to the choir of quickly assumed common knowledge thanks to an ever-shifting reality, and late night shows have the luxury of not having to worry about it as much as the rest of media. Literature and film, on the other hand, have to worry constantly about the window of opportunity given and taken away by the latest technological, sociocultural and political advancements or regressions. While Dave Eggers’s novel “The Circle” was praised for its timeliness about the constantly growing influence of social media and its possible repercussions, it’s film adaptation cannot say the same – and quite possibly, even less.

The Circle was one of 2017’s most anticipated films, and recent advertising somehow tries to make that fact a point of interest, as if such knowledge correlates with being a worthwhile viewing experience. What would have been most comforting, though, was that Ponsoldt co-wrote the script with Eggers, himself. The source material’s author combining with one of the hottest new filmmakers in the industry today? There was little way to imagine failure.

It’s never a good sign, however, when mere aspiring critics such as myself are privy to a film’s quality around the same time as the rest of the press. For example, we started seeing reviews for James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 coming in a week ago, suggesting the embargo on all of them had been lifted, but The Circle’s recent screening at Tribeca this past Wednesday was the first time most people would have laid eyes on it. By all accounts, it was hidden from the public eye completely, and for good reason as it turns out.

Ironically, The Circle is guilty of the same narcissism post-modern scholars ascribe to the average social media user. It’s a film that says everything and nothing all at once, while positing in a slick, fashionable way that it’s bringing new information to the discourse. Scenes heavily focus on however many metaphoric riffs it can lay against ideas of social media elites as the ultimate power figures, Millennial corporate culture and the creepy omnipresence of tech just to name a few, all without leading to a succinct message that extends beyond the simplistic notion that social media is evil. Though there is a certain level of artifice we accept with the premise, watching each sequence is wholly cringeworthy not because their themes and meanings are prescient, but because they aren’t new observations anymore.

Watching the film strut around so full of itself and blissfully ignorant of what it’s audience is already aware of is at once laugh and squirm-inducing, though perhaps not as disappointing as the work turned in by its primary performers. In spite of her talents, Emma Watson isn’t able to infuse Mae with a convincing sense of empathy that puts her on the outside of this cult-like tech company. Perhaps that’s ultimately the point, but when her character is meant to subvert the influence of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), the film’s central conflict never feels fully resolved. And maybe it’s a fault of the writing, but we never see Hanks’s Bailey outside of the caricature he creates from innovators such as Steve Jobs, lacking the dimension necessary for a villain.

And with a script that’s so busy taking cheap shots without unifying them for a clearer purpose, it all but forgets to build a cohesive story around them. As viewers, we are consigned to the film’s clumsy ambling through metaphor after metaphor, almost all of which fail to establish the desires or struggles of its protagonists, and in turn floundering in its attempts to organically create a centralized conflict. In fact, it’s rather cynical how the film uses pseudo-intellectualism to disguise everything that it’s missing, especially the incredibly loose sense of structure barely holding its plot together.

Unless you’re looking for unintentional comedy that actively, relentlessly condescends to its audience, The Circle is one of the worst experiences you’ll have at the theater this year. At the very least, films such as Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and Going In Style have little to no pretensions about what they are: simple studio pictures, and nothing more. The Circle, instead, has the gall to waltz about as if it’s free from criticism because of its timely message, but if you pay attention to rise and fall of Rotten Tomatoes scores, it and STX Films are in for a rude awakening.

1.5/5

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