For technophobes still overwhelmed by such newfangled phenomena as AOL and Google, “Disconnect,” docu director Henry-Alex Rubin’s first narrative feature, might carry sobering truths about human communication in today’s device-fixated world. For the rest of us, however, this well-meaning but dated and frequently risible issue-drama packs rather less of a punch. Braiding the stories of a disparate ensemble variously affected by the malleability of online identity, all arriving at the same predictable moral conclusion, this decently acted pic should easily secure distribution on the strength of its big-name cast. Auds, however, might feel the connection more in ancillary.
In 2005, Miranda July delightfully but unnervingly explored the hazards of chatroom anonymity in “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” while Paul Haggis struck a nerve with “Crash,” his sprawling study of urban social detachment and distrust in modern America. Similarly inspired by novelist E.M. Forster’s deathless instruction to “only connect,” “Disconnect” would have seemed a comparatively minor effort even seven years ago. In 2012, Andrew Stern’s overworked but oddly nonspecific script needs to be a lot savvier about contempo media culture to bear the didactic weight of its themes. “Maybe I’ll be on a reality show or something,” laughs one character, which hardly cuts ice as a satirical jab.
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“Can we just talk?” a character asks in the film’s opening exchange, a question that will be asked, verbally and otherwise, many more times before the credits roll. The speaker, in this case, is hotshot TV reporter Nina (Andrea Riseborough), the recipient Kyle (Max Thieriot), a chiseled teenage rentboy for the digital age. Kyle is paid to display his beefy wares via webcam for an underage porn syndicate, which Nina seeks to expose in a primetime news slot. When the FBI picks up on the story and demands that Nina reveal her source, both she and Kyle are put in danger.
An equally unsavory storyline finds Emo-fringed high-school loner Ben (Jonah Bobo) unwittingly bullied by classmates via Facebook. Fabricating the profile of a misfit teenage girl who seems to be sexually interested in him, they bait him into revealing intimate photos, the unhappy consequences of which are all too easily surmised. Also punished for her emotional vulnerability is Cindy (Paula Patton), a young mother grown distant from her ex-military husband Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) in the wake of their child’s death. She finds solace in an online chatroom for the bereaved, where she winds up a victim of credit-card fraud that bankrupts the couple.
To retrieve their funds, Derek and Cindy employ the services of professional internet-crime investigator Mike (Frank Grillo), whose son Jason (the promising Colin Ford) turns out to be one of Ben’s tormenters. Racked with guilt, Jason reaches out under an assumed identity to Ben’s devastated father Rich (Jason Bateman), who in turn is Nina’s boss … and so on and so forth. We’re all connected, you see, and yet distanced from each other by high-tech proxies.
In case the subtlety of the message is lost on some viewers, Rubin and his skilled d.p. Ken Seng have hit on an ornate shooting scheme, also used heavily in “Crash,” by which characters are repeatedly shot through windows, corridors or wire fences, separated from each other in the frame to symbolize the modern individual’s adherence to the film’s title. This, at least, is a more delicate visual flourish than the bathetic slow-motion montage of physical contact between characters at the film’s close.
Hemmed in by such rigidity of writing and direction, the actors do their best to wring some genuine feeling out of this superficially impassioned but coldly diagrammatic material. Most affecting is Bateman, neatly cast against type as the family man who realizes he’s been running his household with the same businesslike efficiency as his workplace. He’s good enough that you wish Stern had thought to write some sparring scenes for Hope Davis, sorely overqualified for her reactive wife role. The least expected face in the ensemble is that of superstar fashion designer Marc Jacobs, climbing down from his gilded perch to make a credible acting debut as Kyle’s malevolent pimp.