Alienation in the midst of near-constant communication-by-technology is the none-too-original subject of Henry-Allen Rubin’s “Disconnect,” a “Crash”-like mixture of interlocking stories that together tell us that we should reach out and really touch somebody once in a while rather than simply stroking a keyboard. It works for a while, but eventually the crush of coincidence takes its toll.
The first plot thread focuses on Nina (Andrea Riseborough), who makes contact with Kyle (Max Thieriot), a teen Internet stud who demonstrates his physical wares for hungry women at a price. He’s part of a digital harem housed dorm-style by a Fagin-like fellow who runs the operation. And she’s a local TV news reporter who’s looking for a story—and convinces Kyle to become the subject of one, unbeknown to his boss of course. Meanwhile Cindy (Paula Patton) and Derek (Alexander Skarsgard), young marrieds still grieving the death of their child, find themselves denuded of funds when an identity thief drains their bank account and credit cards. They hire former cop Mike (Frank Grillo), an investigator who specializes in crime-by-computer, to track down the culprit.
Mike is also playing single dad to his adolescent son Jason (Colin Ford), who, along with a pal, humiliates their outcast classmate Ben (Jonah Bobo) by creating a phony account on a social-network site in the name of a non-existent girl, through which they persuade him to post a revealing photo of himself which they then circulate through the school. Ben, already on the edge, tries to hang himself and winds up hospitalized in a coma. His father Rich (Jason Bateman), who’d been distant from the boy, is now determined to find out what drove him to such a desperate act. In the process he contacts his son’s network friends, including the fictional girl; and through that means Jason comes to realize the pain he’s caused.
Rich, a lawyer whose clients include the television station where Nina works, is called in when the FBI takes note of her story on Kyle and demands that she reveal her sources or face prosecution. Nina tries to salvage the situation by persuading Kyle to go to the authorities himself, promising to help him start a new life if he does. But it turns out he’s not much interested in changing his line of work, even though he might be in danger if his boss finds out about his role in revealing the operation. Meanwhile Rich identifies Jason as his son’s tormentor and goes to confront him and his father. And Mike has given Cindy and Derek the name of the man who he thinks stole their savings, and they go off to deal with him themselves.
The threat of violence obviously pervades each of the interconnected stories in “Disconnect.” But mayhem isn’t the goal of Rubin and writer Andrew Stern. They’re not out to shock viewers with physical brutality; they want to warn them about the psychological damage that can be done by the electronics one can use as weapons as well as modes of communication. And even more, they want to remind us of the importance of maintaining real, direct human contact in a world where everybody is constantly “connected,” but by device rather than in person.
Those are all fine sentiments, but there’s a schematic, over-plotted quality to the film that makes it feel more like a long public-service announcement than a well-crafted drama. And while each of the narrative threads possesses some moments of genuine power, it’s only sporadic. The most consistently effective element is certainly that dealing with Ben’s suicide attempt. Although it sometimes has an afternoon special feel, it’s marked by performances from Bateman, Bobo and Ford that ring true. But even it suffers from heavy-handedness, as in the moment when two hands finally touch as a sign that people can still reach out to one another in a sympathetic way. By comparison the other stories seem more contrived and over-written, and the acting in them is less subtle. The film’s themes are also italicized by cinematography that uses composition to emphasize the separation between the characters in spatial terms.
“Disconnect” obviously wants to say something important about the threat posed to human relationships by modern technology. But ironically, by linking things up so snugly it damages its ability to connect with us.