Many writers say they prefer not start the writing process with a theme in mind – they simply let it emerge organically from their plot or characters. But then, plenty of films have gone the other way. The multi-stranded, interconnected drama revolving around a particular subject or theme, like Steven Soderbergh’s take on the war on drugs in “Traffic,” or Paul Thomas Anderson’s examination of coincidence and happenstance in “Magnolia,” have proved particularly popular in recent years. And given that they garlanded financial and critical success, it makes sense that others have set out to follow in their footsteps.
The latest is “Disconnect,” which marks the fiction feature debut not only of screenwriter Andrew Stern, but also director Henry Alex Rubin, who won acclaim seven years ago for his Oscar-winning documentary “Murderball.” Telling the story of a group of interlinked people who all find their lives upended by the internet, it hopes to be a “Traffic” for the Web 2.0 age, but unfortunately, finds its cues in more ways than one in another similar film, Paul Haggis’ “Crash.”
There are essentially three major plot strands. In the first, a teenager (Colin Ford), feeling constrained by his ex-cop single father (Frank Grillo), decides with his friend to torment an introverted, artistic classmate (Jonah Bobo), by posing as a girl from another school and persuading him to send naked pictures of himself. The pictures have soon gone viral, leaving the devastated victim to take drastic action, and the boy’s father (Jason Bateman), out to find out the identity of his son’s bully.
Meanwhile, Bateman is the lawyer for a TV news company, where a young reporter (Andrea Riseborough) out to land her first big story, is trying to get the lowdown on the webcam sex trade, by befriending an 18-year-old street kid (Max Thierot) who makes a living jerking off on camera. The pair feel a real connection, but is she prepared to protect him when the story gets more attention than she anticipated? Finally, Grillo’s character is a private detective specializing in computer crime, and is hired by a married couple (Paula Patton and Alexander Skarsgard), whose marriage, already crumbling after the death of their baby son, is threatened when an identity thief steals their bank details, putting them at risk of losing their home.
While the internet and social networking might have brought us closer together, Rubin is principally concerned in the ways it has also driven us apart. As Bateman’s character says of his son at one point, “I think I text him more than I talk to him.” But the on-the-nose title is somehow almost the least obvious thing about the film – Stern’s dismal script hits the hot button topics of a thousand hand-wringing, scaremongering editorials (Webcam sex! Identity theft! Trolling!), in a way that means you can tell how they’re going to play out as soon as they’re set up.
The exception is perhaps Patton and Skarsgard’s section (which also features “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” star Michael Nykvist), but only because – without giving it away – the payoff is such a damp squib that you could never dream that it might wrap up on such an anticlimactic note. Patton is decent enough, but Skarsgard is saddled with a character who’s not only dealing with a dead son, but also a gambling habit and a seemingly-traumatic past in the Marines, and struggles to find any consistency in the character.
Even worse is the Riseborough section. The British rising star (who, unfortunately, also featured in last year’s Venice lowlight, “W.E.”) is a terrific actress, but she’s severely miscast here, buried under a Jennifer-Aniston-circa-1995 haircut and a part that’s a good ten years too old for her (she was playing a schoolgirl only a few years ago…), and as scripted, her character keeps making decision after decision that beggars belief.
Slightly more effective is the “trolling” storyline, mainly because it features some of the best performances in the film – Ford does a good job as a bully whose conscience pricks even before the worst happens, and Bateman again demonstrates how good he can be in straight roles, and the ever-terrific Grillo manages to make sense of a somewhat bipolar character. But the storyline, like the film in general, still comes off as a kind of after-school special, its characters motivated by message, rather than by the way people actually behave. And why you’d cast an actress as great as Hope Davis (who play’s Bateman’s wife) and then fail to give her anything to do is a wasted opportunity.
With a better script, Rubin might be able to demonstrate that he’s at least a strong director of actors. But the film’s pacing is molasses-like, and visually, the photography (by “Project X” cinematographer Ken Seng) overtly seems to be taking its inspiration from “Crash,” with the same kind of color scheme and handheld feel. That’s not really a comparison that they should have encouraged, given that the script tracks in the same kind of banalities and shoddy plotting that the Oscar-winner did.
Despite some fairly decent performances, “Disconnect” is a film that feels both old-fashioned and like old news, revealing nothing new that wasn’t already suggested by some half-assed op-ed half a decade ago. [D]