Henry Alex Rubin’s “Disconnect” opened this year’s Santa Barbara International Film Festival, a screening that seems so very far away from the film now returning to theaters. Admittedly, it was one of the better opening movies in the year of the fest, boasting recognizable names and a contemporary setting. And it was definitely a step up from “Darling Companion,” the previous year’s film about a couple searching for a dog. But outside the context of the evening, with the excitement hanging in the air like ozone over a beach, “Disconnect” is all a bit much of a muchness.
A woe-is-us worryfest about the evils of technology, Andrew Stern’s script gives us three stories and interweaves them later in the film. With its po-faced moralizing, it’s reminiscent of Paul Haggis’ drippy “Crash,” but with iPads, which itself was an attempt to reinvent Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” (which took its inspiration from Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”).
The three narratives progress as such: A plucky television reporter (Andrea Riseborough) plans an exposé on a house that hosts sex webcams, and gets involved with one of the 18-year-old performers (Max Thieriot). Later the FBI force her to betray her source. Two kids (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein) cyber-bully a fellow student (Jonah Bobo), using a fake Facebook profile to lead him on, with tragic results. A couple (Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton) still reeling from the death of their infant retreat into their own insular online worlds, only to find their online identities have been stolen. But they are all linked in little ways: The detective (Frank Grillo) sent to investigate the identity theft is father to one of the bullies. And the bullied child’s father (Jason Bateman) is called to serve as lawyer when the news station is visited by the FBI.
Mr. Stern’s thesis is that modern technology like iPads, iPhones, texting, chatrooms and gambling sites remove us from flesh-and-blood interaction; that your online friends may be fake; that having your credit card info stolen is not just easy, but financially ruinous. And it’s all technology’s fault! However, what “Disconnect” really trades in are homilies that predate tech: bullies are actually victims themselves; busy parents find it hard to talk to their teenage kids because, well, they’re teenagers; a dead infant puts strain on a marriage; busybody reporters sometimes use and manipulate their subjects for personal gain. If we only just communicated with each other more often and better. But we don’t, regardless of whether we have an iPhone in our face or not — it’s the human condition.
Anyway, all this would be fine if either the performances were something special or the movie had some oomph to it. But it doesn’t. It feels very serious with a capital S, with no cracks of humor getting in through this morose cloud. One can hear the scriptwriter editorializing through the mouths of his characters, and in the end nobody is particularly likable. The final montage during the climax, full of slow-mo and dramatic music, feels like emotion unearned. A few performances hint at something better: Colin Ford’s bully shows several facets of his character; and Hope Davis (as the bullied boy’s mother) does a lot with a little screen time. But you’ll be forgiven if somewhere during the film you check your phone.
Starring: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Paula Patton, Frank Grillo
Length: 115 minutes
Rating: R for sexual content, some graphic nudity, language, violence and drug use — some involving teens
Playing at: Paseo Nuevo