Online flirting, identity theft, cyberbullying, sexting... what happens when technology creates new forms of interaction that outpace social evolution? This is the highbrow concept behind the very human drama, DISCONNECT, which had its US premiere as the opening night film of the 2013 Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Thursday. It is the first feature from Henry Alex Rubin, who previously directed the well-received doc, MURDERBALL, and features Jason Bateman, Alexander Skarsgard, and Paula Patton, in dramatic roles, amidst a large ensemble cast.
The film features two only-tangentially connected plot lines. In one, Paula Patton plays Cindy, married to Alexander Skarsgard’s Derek --- a couple who can’t seem to get it together after the death of their child. Through a mysterious turn of events, they become the victim of identity theft, and their life savings is stolen out from under them. They engage the help of Mike (Frank Grillo), a computer forensics expert. But Mike, it turns out, is the father of Frye (Aviad Bernstein), who, along with his buddy Jason (Colin Ford), is pretending to be a teen girl online, and flirting with another teenager, Ben (Jonah Bobo). As you might expect, things don’t go well for the teens, and before long, Ben’s father (Jason Bateman) starts to investigate what happened. There are a good half-dozen other actors involved, though none get a terribly large amount of screen time.
DISCONNECT has plenty going for it, notably being one of the first films to delve deeply into problems or real-world disconnection exacerbated by our desire to connect online. It couldn’t be more timely. While some of the film’s story lines are inspired from recent headlines, they could not have foreseen the epic saga of Manti Te’o and his illusive girlfriend, which has parallels in the film. Perhaps both were inspired by a recent supposed documentary, which I won’t state here for fear of spoiling that film, or maybe this is just a thing in our society now: creating fake personas that cause a very real wake of destruction in the physical world.
And identity theft is gigantic problem that is only getting worse as more and more of our personal information migrates online. I’ve had to deal with it multiple times in my own life. How can it be that something like this has hit me so hard, and yet we have so few social structures to deal with it? Partly, it is because it is such a rapidly growing problem, and partly it is because it is rarely discussed. Films are one way we collectively deal with social ills, so this one a welcome addition in my book.
Of course, DISCONNECT isn’t just dealing with these concepts as abstractions -- they are ways into grappling with our lack of ability to communicate and connect in all facets of life. The identity theft is also a metaphor for a couple who have lost the core of who they were after a traumatic event. And the teenager who finds fake love online has a loving family all around him that he can’t relate to, and who can’t relate to him.
But maybe the most interesting aspect of DISCONNECT is Jason Bateman in a completely serious role. If you don’t love him in ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, that’s just because you haven’t seen it. But we know he can be funny, and even serious-quirky, like in JUNO. But here there isn’t a shred of comedy to his performance. I talked to the director, Henry Alex Rubin, at a party after the screening, and he said he saw the same kind of actor DNA in Jason Bateman as he sees in Tom Hanks --- a funny, charming guy who can play an everyman, but who is equally at home in a completely dramatic role. I certainly enjoyed his work here, even if his character is so serious as to be almost one-dimensional. Jason Bateman’s charm and wit is a national treasure, and to strip him of this arsenal without replacing it with something even more powerful (like amazing writing), seems to me to be a crime. He’s got the acting chops for sure, but I think I need to see him in an even deeper, more dynamic role (i.e. outside of an ensemble cast) before I declare him even the next Robin Williams, to say nothing of the holiest of the avuncular trying-not-to-be funnymen, Tom Hanks.
Ladies, I know what you’re thinking -- enough with such nonsense, how’s Alexander Skarsgard? Interestingly enough, he’s cast against type here -- he’s just a normal schlub -- not the nordic god or perfectly-ripped vampire that you’ve come to expect. In fact, the director confessed to me that he imagined his character as most similar to his character in GENERATION KILL, only 15 years later, and no longer in the military. Here again, he’s taking away the actor’s most bankable qualities. It is a bold move, and Skarsgard is fine in the role, but I’m not sure this is the kind of thing that will put asses in the seats. In this case too, he’s limited by the size of the role and the relative one-dimensionality and seriousness of it. Sure this character, like Bateman’s, has a moment of epiphany, change, and emotion, but they are telegraphed so far away as to be unsurprising.
Ensemble films are can be erratic in terms of pacing, and DISCONNECT is no exception. There are so many characters that it takes a while to get to know each one. I was almost ready to give up on it, since by the time inciting incidents started to happen to each character, I was not yet invested in them. Ultimately, though, it does build up a head of steam and weave together seemingly disparate threads into a satisfying conclusion. There is an emotional crescendo that happens to nearly everyone, all at once. And these climactic scenes are shot in a kind of slow motion that is hard to describe, but is simply stunning. The only problem is that the film takes just a bit too long doing getting there.
All in all, DISCONNECT is a worthwhile effort, is engaging, and is intellectually interesting. But it is kind of like going to see Michael Jordan play baseball. Hey, that’s pretty cool that he can do that too. But he’s not on the field that often, and even if that ground-rule double is exciting, what you really came to see was a slam-dunk.