Thursday, April 18, 2013

'Disconnect' tries to plug into real emotions

Parts more powerful than the whole in this admirably ambitious look at loneliness, isolation and the pain of daily living.

E-mail, chat rooms, cell phones, laptops, instant messaging, tablets and photos that go viral all become part of the high-tech plot machinery in Disconnect, a drama that attempts (and almost succeeds) to use technology as a gateway to examining the loneliness and isolation that often colors contemporary experience.

Director Henry Alex Rubin, who previously directed the documentary Murderball, takes a somber approach to material that's topical, disturbing and not without examples of cruelty.

A large and well-employed cast helps to overcome an increasingly melodramatic and inelegantly contrived screenplay as Rubin -- working from a script by Andrew Stern -- moves through a variety of story lines, each of which proves more interesting than the ways in which the director ties them together in the end.

Rubin's cast of characters includes a married couple (Alex Skarsgard and Paula Patton) that recently lost a son. They become victims of identity theft. We also meet two teen-age boys (Colin Ford and Aviad Bernstein) who adopt the on-line identity of a teen-age girl in order to embarrass a classmate (Jonah Bobo) whom they regard as geeky and vulnerable.

Bobo's Ben struggles with a range of typical problems faced by kids who are considered "uncool" by their classmates. His parents (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis) don't seem to realize the depth of their son's torment. Nor does Ben's sister (Haley Ramm), a teen who disdains her brother because her friends regard him as a social misfit.

Meanwhile, the ex-cop father of one of the bullying boys (Frank Grillo) is hired to investigate the identity theft experienced by Skarskard and Patton.

If all that weren't enough (and it might well have been) Rubin adds the story of an ambitious TV reporter (Andrea Riseborough) who discovers an on-line site that traffics in teen-age sexual exploitation. Riseborough's Nina tries to persuade one of the teen workers (Max Theiriot) to be interviewed for an expose that's bound to boost her career.

That's enough plot for several movies, but Rubin staves off confusion, as he develops the movie, giving each story a palpable sense of sadness.

Viewers inevitably will compare Disconnect to a movie such as Crash, which also tried to examine lots of interconnected lives. The comparison may be unavoidable, but that shouldn't negate Rubin's accomplishment.

Disconnect is the kind of emotionally charged project that requires actors to dig deep, and Rubin's cast doesn't let him (or us) down. Unfortunately, though, the material ultimately lets the actors down, and we're left with a movie in which some terrific and highly credible scenes don't jell in totally convincing ways.

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