I preferred “Disconnect” 10 years ago when it was called “Crash.” You remember, that vignette-heavy movie where half a dozen main characters cross paths when their dramatic trajectories unexpectedly intertwine.
This film is about Internet-infused alienation in an anonymous New York suburb, not racism in Los Angeles, but the thesis is identical. There’s a polluting influence that permeates our culture and everyday interactions within society. Let the hand-wringing, brow-furrowing and deep pronouncements about the true brotherhood of man commence.
Henry Aaron Rubin, who made the bruising wheelchair rugby documentary “Murderball,” is agile enough juggling the parallel story lines. He cuts the polemic into bite-sized pieces, and keeps us close to the characters with handheld camerawork, generating a sense of anxious intimacy without motion sickness.
A TV news reporter (Andrea Riseborough) chasing a story about underage performers on sex-cam shows develops a complicated bond with her seductive teenaged source (Max Thieriot). Across town, a wealthy lawyer (Jason Bateman) tethered to his smartphone learns how fragile his family relationships are as his wallflower son (Jonah Bobo), tormented by cyber-bullying classmates, is driven to an act of desperation.
In another story stream, a Marine combat vet (Alexander Skarsgard) struggles to salvage his failing marriage. He distracts himself with online gambling while his wife (Paula Patton) pours out her feelings to anonymous members of a grief chat room, ill-advised actions enabling an online predator to bankrupt them. They hunt down a suspect (Michael Nyqvist of the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” series), but is he really the culprit?
The film is a heavy-handed cautionary tale. Each character learns a lesson, and so do we, and none of it is front-page-scoop material. Are our cyber-gizmos really undermining our values and virtues? People stole, sold their bodies and treated each other shamefully when the cutting-edge communication platform was a clay tablet. Spiritually, we are in After School Special country. “Disconnect” stops short of having a digitally distracted driver run over a baby carriage, but you get the feeling it was batted around for a while in the script meetings.
Bateman, bearded and dour, displays a sympathetic naturalism in a rare dramatic role. He gives us a successful professional who is compassionate and corrupted, likable and full of self-loathing. He shares one of the film’s best scenes as he and young Colin Ford, who plays one of his son’s classmates, hold an instant-message conversation. It’s not easy to make a typing duet compelling, but the rising tide of remorse in each actor’s face is undeniably moving.
In a strange but effective bit of casting, fashion designer Marc Jacobs plays the sex-cam operation’s creepy yet humane ringleader. Strong performances notwithstanding, the movie never connects.