James Ponsoldt looks to make a splash with his follow-up to the well-reviewed The End of the Tour. Ponsoldt also directed The Spectacular Now, a brilliant coming-of-age tale that put both Miles Tiller and Shailene Woodley on the map. With The Circle Ponsoldt travels out of his comfort zone for a feature which, conceptually, is exciting. Its execution leaves a lot to be desired, though, and one can only imagine how much better this could’ve been with some rewrites and better decisions.

The Circle stars Emma Watson, Ellar Coltrane, Karen Gillan, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Bill Paxton (in his final film role), Glenne Headly and Tom Hanks. It centers on Mae Holland (Watson) and her experiences at her job, the Google-like internet company the Circle. Mae’s meager beginnings at the Circle take a turn for the better when she becomes an internet celebrity. Her meteoric rise is watched closely by the Circle’s two founders, Eamon Bailey (Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Oswalt), but as social norms are flaunted (and the right to privacy is challenged) there are more sinister things going on which Mae can either get on board with or reveal to everyone watching. Her actions, which are already affecting the internet, could have a greater, worldly effect.

Although trailers gave off an intriguing premise, Ponsoldt is a director who works best building characters and relationships. Those skills are evident in The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, and he extends that (somewhat) here. The problem is that the relationships, and the gravity of those relationships, aren’t examined nearly enough – room had to made for the 110-minute film’s tech aspect. So Mae’s invaluable relationship with her parents, Vinnie (Paxton) and Bonnie (Headley), doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. That’s sad, because even from afar Mae's parents sense somethign is amiss with the Circle. On top of that, Vinnie is dealing with multiple sclerosis, which easily would add depth to Mae's storyline and character.

Because Mae has embraced the social and global impact of the Circle’s ventures, her relationship with Mercer (Coltrane) has soured. Mercer obviously isn’t as welcoming of today’s technological advances – he’d rather hang out at a quiet cabin, experience life and remain unplugged. Ironically, Coltrane’s character from Boyhood, Mason, espoused the same sentiments about social media and its affect on society, so Mercer seems to be an extension of Mason (some have joked that Mercer is simply Mason as an adult). Besides that, this is another relationship which doesn’t get much attention, and Coltrane's performance is wooden (to say the least). The lack of development amongst The Circle’s characters is appalling.

Ponsoldt moved away from what made him successful as a director by sacrificing character and relationship development for a cheap knockoff of The Truman Show. Mae became an internet celebrity because she chose to have her every move recorded and broadcast online. The added wrinkle are the real-time posts that pop up all over the screen as Mae goes about her day, which is 24-7 Circle-related. Mae lives and works at the Circle’s humungous campus, and with tiny cameras (which her company produced) her whole life is out there for all to see. It goes back to Bailey’s idea that no one should have secrets, because “secrets are lies.” Thanks to his ready-made charm and his cool uncle approach, Bailey has mixed some strong Kool-Aid, and Mae is drinking up plenty of it.

There is a voice of reason in the form of Ty Lafitte (Boyega), a programmer who invented the program which the Circle is built upon. Boyega’s appearance is more of a cameo, and I still don’t understand why Ty felt compelled to confide in Mae about how everything is not what it seems. Let’s just say this is another example of a relationship with no depth or development – Ty is around merely to state the obvious for audiences.

With The Circle, Ponsoldt and co-writer Dave Eggers (Eggers also wrote the book upon which the film is based on) try hard to provide audiences with a cautionary tale to warn us of the ills and evils of social networking, lack of personal privacy and compulsive oversharing. But there’s nothing smart or engaging about this feature – it’s more smug, preposterous and empty than anything. Add to it a main character in Mae who’s frustrating to no end and The Circle is nothing more than a bunch of promising concepts which aren’t completely realized. As is true with nearly every feature he’s in, Tom Hanks is the highlight, but he’s not in it nearly enough to improve things.

2.5 stars out of 5

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