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Film review: ‘The Circle’

If you’re going skewer Bay Area tech culture - and, hoo boy, is there a lot to work with there - you need to really skewer, you need to get on the level of “Silicon Valley.” But “The Circle” needles as strongly as an elementary school lampoon magazine. Instead of satire, it is mostly a straightforward depiction of a young woman, Mae (Emma Watson), trying to do well at a new job.

Mae is the guppy at social media monopoly The Circle - influencer like Facebook, infinity campus like Apple, logo like Uber. Watson, bizarrely styled as a 12-year-old for the early part of the film, works in customer care, where 99 percent satisfaction requires a follow-up survey on why she’s not keeping it 100 (if you want to watch a better movie about Watson being brainwashed at an isolated compound, it’s not too late to catch “Beauty and the Beast”).

In her interview at The Circle, Mae namechecks Joan Didion but never cracks (even an e-) book during the course of the film, as she’s too occupied with her old friend and now overwhelmed colleague Annie (Karen Gillan) and most off-brand coworker Ty (a twitchy John Boyega, acting like a rogue Stormtrooper because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

After a laughably overwrought solo kayak accident, Mae garners the attention The Circle cofounders, Dear Leader Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, one of the unlikelier alleged surfers in cinema history) and Chief Executive Skulker in Corners Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt who, at this point, mostly plays the human embodiment of an evil cackle).

Because she suffers from an unspecific but extreme general guiltiness and apparent belief that people do behave better when being watched, Mae volunteers for “full transparency.” This involves going all in on SeeChange, a Circle initiative that plants tiny wearable (and disguisable) cameras everywhere because knowledge is good but “knowing everything is better.”

Mae’s parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) are mostly confined to video chats but are shown a modicum of respect because they’re displayed in landscape view. They ask a few fair questions about their daughter’s vanishing sense of privacy, and her antler-chandelier-designing ex-whatever, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), asks a lot more.

Poor Mercer is punished overmuch for his wish to maintain a shred of confidentiality but not punished enough for the gross patchy beard he wears. In one of a dozen nonsensical parts in the film, Mae suddenly dismisses her old friend as a “non-social” person and asks, “Don’t you have to go chop some wood?” “The Circle” has some funny moments but the laughs are at, rather than with, the film.

The cringing intensifies when the company rolls out SoulSearch, a crowdsourced fugitive finder that ferrets out those on the lam by putting their faces on The Circle’s milk carton and sending users after them like termites at an unfinished attic.

Screenwriter Dave Eggers tepidly adapts from his own, already dated 2013 book… but at least he is friends with Beck, who appears in concert in the film. Because his ideal heroine is never cynical, Eggers makes Mae a believer, but provides her few other discerning qualities. Director James Ponsoldt lacks ideas to elevate the material and relies the tired approach of filling the frame with message bubbles to reflect our screen-saturated life.

Just as “The Circle” is obsessed with metrics, the movie attempts many records, like the most eye-rolling rhetorical questions asked, the most reaction shots of someone looking nervously at a device, not to mention the most unnecessarily risky kayaking trips undertaken.

All we can do is nod along when Mae delivers the occasional trenchant remark, like this 2017 reality: “Privacy was a temporary thing.”

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