If you've heard anything about "Disconnect," the new feature by "Murderball" director Henry Alex Rubin, it's probably one of two things: it offers a cautionary look at our modern methods of communication (or lack thereof) and it features the first on-screen acting performance by fashion designer Marc Jacobs.
Turns out, however, that Jacobs wasn't Rubin's first choice to play Harvey, the skeevy proprietor of an online-sex-show emporium who recruits teenagers to strip on camera. The director had cast his friend Simon Hammerstein, grandson of Oscar and owner of The Box nightclub in Manhattan, but Hammerstein's wife balked after reading the script. With just two weeks left before shooting began, Rubin thought of Jacobs. "I'd made a seven-minute short film years ago where he'd made a cameo," Rubin said. "I remembered that he'd had good comic timing. And the truth is, if you have good comic timing, it usually means you have instincts, which usually means you're going to be a good actor."
Jacobs' performance stands up to those of his more experienced cast mates, among them Jason Bateman, Hope Davis and Alexander Skarsgaard. And according to Rubin, the designer really is acting. "He couldn't be farther away from this character," the director says. "The funny thing about Marc is that if you look at him from afar, he looks kind of scary, because he's got this shaved head and he's got all these tattoos. But then when you get close up, you realize those tattoos are of M&M's and SpongeBob SquarePants, and he's actually just a complete silly person who's very whimsical. It was hard to get him to yell or raise his voice. It was hard to get him to hit Andrea Riseborough [who plays a journalist investigating Harvey's operation]. It was hard to get him to do these things, but in the end I think he comes off pretty well."
Did Jacobs ever express any anxiety about playing such a shady character? "No, he's not like that. He doesn't worry about what people think," Rubin says. "He saw it as a challenge, like, 'Why not? I'll try this. I've never done this before.'"
Last month, Jacobs and Rubin sat down with the editor-in-chief of this site, Arianna Huffington, for a Q&A following a screening of the film in Manhattan. Writing about the film a few days later, Huffington wrote, "'Disconnect' shows how easy it is to allow technology to lure us into a somnambulist life, gradually being pulled away from a sense of who we are and what really matters." Rubin agrees, while stressing he and the film's writer, Andrew Stern, "certainly didn't want to make a movie with a message or have it be preachy." Rather, they wanted to "explore the idea of how do we communicate with each other today, and the duality of the fact that the Internet can bring us joy and it can bring us danger."
The film tells three intertwined stories, in a style reminiscent of Stephen Soderbergh's 2000 drug-war drama "Traffic." Each story line is built around a different Internet-era danger: cyberbullying, identity theft, the online sex trade. Before shooting commenced, Rubin conducted extensive interviews with real people in those worlds. "I met a kid who was in an online sex show," he says. "He was not ashamed at all of the job he did. And he said to me several times, 'It's not my problem if the whole world has hangups about sexuality and I don't.' And some of that dialogue made its way directly into the movie."
At the end of the day, Rubin says, "Disconnect" seems to be (wait for it) connecting with audiences. "I've noticed that the movie -- perhaps not to critics, who approach movies intellectually, which is very fair -- but to people who go to the movie with open hearts, they are by and large very moved by the film, which makes me happy."
"Disconnect" opens today, April 12. Watch the trailer below.