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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Review: Disconnect

Henry Alex Rubin's Disconnect is a film that focuses on the internet and how it affects the communications we have with everyone around us, be it our families, colleagues, anyone. The central premise is not completely off-putting and could have been the subject of a very smart satire, as we've had quite a few of those in recent years that have focused on the changing culture within America. Disconnect plays it all very straight, and very dramatically; so dramatically in fact, that the film at times becomes a struggle to get through. I generally get excited for ensemble dramas, particularly examples that really work for me like Short Cuts and Magnolia. Disconnect is more like this decade's version of Crash, but maybe even thicker on the melodrama, just replace race with an Ipad or laptop.

Disconnect revolves around a triptych of tales that focus on three specific strands that Rubin is seeking to explore: stolen identity, online sex trafficking, and cyber-bullying. Rich Boyd (Jason Bateman) is an attorney whose son Ben (Jonah Bobo) becomes the target of a couple of cyber-bullies who pose as a young girl and message him over a Facebook-like social network service. They convince Ben to send them a nude picture of himself, which is then shared widely across the school. Rich, in his day job, represents a television station, of whom a rising reporter named Nina (Andrea Riseborough) befriends a teen sex-cam worker named Kyle (Max Theriot), Nina convinces Kyle to be a part of a investigative piece about industry in which he works. The effects of which lead to a potential FBI sting of the home in which Kyle and his friends work out of. Lastly, the father of one of the cyber-bullies, Mike (Frank Grillo), is a private investigator that is hired by a recently bereaving couple, Derek and Cindy, (Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton) who have been the victims of identity theft, having had their bank account drained and credit cards maxed out. After Mike determines the identity of the possible perpetrator, the couple decides to take the law into their own hands.

Disconnect is a film that takes itself very seriously, it has a message and it wants you to hear it, no matter how loudly it needs to scream; and scream it does, multiple times in fact. Characters emote constantly, spewing off pseudo-monologues about how their families are falling apart, or how someone was a horrible parent, and what starts as an interesting little meta-narrative in its opening 20 minutes or so, turns into a mopey mess of poorly timed orchestral crescendos and weepy faces. Taking the film by it's three separate (but connected, no pun intended) strands; each story is fairly mediocre, full of happenstance and illogical nonsense that stands for a pretty messy whole.

The least obtrusive of the three stories is the tale of the reporter, which does a nice job of turning the concept of the damsel in distress on its head by making the female the "savior" for once, which is a refreshing angle to take on. This segment also includes some fairly decent chemistry between Nina and Kyle, though despite his attractiveness, the character comes off as a bit skeezy and you wonder why Nina is having any kind of internal struggle at all. By its conclusion, this plot thread falls victim to bizarre moralizations about how "the press is the real enemy" and the words coming out of Kyle's mouth sounding like something that should have been developed for another character. 

The other two stories range from histrionic slop to completely devoid of point. The tale of poor Ben who attempts to commit suicide after his public humiliation could probably make a decent film on its own if it didn't feel like a clear attempt at relevancy with the current discussion around bullying. This is a serious issue with devastating consequences, but Disconnect tries to pull in these emotional stakes without ever giving the audience a reason to care. By the time tragedy strikes, we know very little about Ben or his home life, other than he's a quiet kid who have parents that are career-focused. Perhaps the argument could be made that something like this could occur in any family, but we at least need to have a greater understanding of the person in which Rubin is attempting to pull our heart-strings with. The less said about the plight of Derek and Cindy, the better. Their entire arc feels like filler and never gels at any point, with plot developments that feel contrived and fly in the face of reality. Honestly, where's the FDIC insurance in all of this?

Rubin does everything he can to manipulate the weepier elements of his audience, Derek and Cindy's baby has died before the movie even starts and we get tons of baby pictures with Cindy in tearful remorse, post-suicide attempt, we get mournful shots of Ben's family while they struggle to cope with what he's done backed by somber piano music he recorded in his home studio (this apparently heightens the effect, I assume), and the struggles of Kyle and his friends get their fair share of wistful looks too. While the script is no great shakes, Rubin's heavy-handed flourishes make it all the worse. The most glaring portion coming during a climactic scene where each character and storyline is in some stage of action, be it through a fist, end of a shotgun, or Jason Bateman swinging a hockey stick. The "so bad, it's funny" part? It's all in slow motion. My fellow audience members had a hard time not laughing a little bit at the pure staginess of it all. 

The biggest trouble with Disconnect is that it wears its influences on its sleeve. It somewhat reminds me of a "drug scare" film from the sixties, the kind that was parodied in Reefer Madness. "The internet is bad and it leads to terrible things", this kind of one-dimensional thinking makes the narrative hard to take seriously, despite Rubin's efforts to make it the most dour movie possible. Rubin also tries to frame his shots like a mini-JJ Abrams, with lens flares coming and going at an almost annoying pace. The performances throughout are fine, other than the slightly bi-polar nature of the characters. Jason Bateman and Frank Grillo try their best to rise above the material, and generally succeed, particularly Grillo, everyone else is pretty non-descript.

Disconnect has an interesting premise at the core that would have worked for an Idiocracy style script, but with its tone and unearned drama, much of the idea is wasted on a style more akin to the Lifetime movie of the week, three of them in fact.

I give it a D 

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