Monday, April 1, 2019

Movie Review: The Hummingbird Project

The Hummingbird Project ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Kim Nguyen.
Written by: Kim Nguyen.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg (Vincent Zaleski), Alexander Skarsgård (Anton Zaleski), Salma Hayek (Eva Torres), Michael Mando (Mark Vega), Johan Heldenbergh (Amish Elder), Ayisha Issa (Ophelia Troller), Mark Slacke (Tasso Casilieris), Sarah Goldberg (Mascha), Frank Schorpion (Bryan Taylor), Kwasi Songui (Ray Engineer), Conrad Pla (Agent Santana), Julian Bailey (Elliot), Jessica Greco (Dr. Bloom), Anna Maguire (Quant Jenny), Ryan Ali (Quant Elias), Amanda Silveira (Amy), Kaniehtiio Horn (Barbara Barmaid). 
Watching The Hummingbird Project is like watching a mishmash of other, better movies that never really settles into its own thing. Does this want to be The Social Network? The Wolf of Wall Street? Is it a comedy? Is it a teary drama? Is it a morality tale? It kind of wants to do everything, and that of course is a surefire way to end up being not much of anything. That’s a shame, because there are two fine performances at its core, and this type of thing is usually right up my alley – but here, it just never really comes together.
The basic premise is that it’s 2011, and the Zaleski cousins – motor mouthed negotiator Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and genius level programmer – probably somewhere on the spectrum – Antonu (Alexander Skarsgard) think they have a way to shave one millisecond off of the time everyone else on Wall Street can get information from Kansas to New York and back again. That may sound like nothing – but if used properly, it could make them hundreds of millions of dollars a year. How? Basically by knowing what stocks people want to buy, and racing out and buying them for pennies less than the buyer is willing to pay, and then selling it to them milliseconds later. Each transaction makes you very little money – but because you do this hundreds of thousands a time a day, it all adds up. They add nothing to the process of course – but just skim a little off the top, so little in fact, that no one really cares but it all adds up. They plan on doing this by drilling a direct line between Kansas and New York – and I mean direct direct – a complete straight line through whatever obstacle stands in their way. By making no turns, the information will travel through the fiber optical line quicker. To do this means a mammoth feat of drilling – through everything – and buying strips of land out of everyone along the line. Of course they sign – it pays well, and the line will be buried, so they will never even know it’s there. Of course, someone will come along sooner or later with a fast way – but even doing this for a year or two, will mean they have enough money to retire and be super, super rich.
Jesse Eisenberg is essentially in The Social Network mode here – smart, determined, and doesn’t give a crap what you think of him. He’s more than a little bit of asshole – he is capable of being charming, and if things are going well, he is. But when things go wrong, he can turn nasty – like when the Amish who own some land in their way don’t want to sell. This is the type of role that Eisenberg can do in his sleep – and he does it well – but you kind of want to see something more from him, which I guess, the movie tries to show when it gives him a deadly illness that requires immediate treatment – advice that, of course, he ignores. But it doesn’t add much. I was more impressed with Skarsgard, who unlike Eisenberg, is clearly cast against type here. Bald, quiet and socially awkward Skarsgard’s Anton lives almost completely inside his own head – obsessed with getting his code up to snuff, to the point where he can shut out the world around him for hours, days, weeks at a time. It’s a fine performance – with a great little dance number late in the film. The two other major roles in the film aren’t as good. It’s good to see the talented Michael Mando from Better Call Sault in a completely different kind of role – the guy in charge of drilling the line – but it’s kind of a thankless role. And Salma Hayek, as Vincent and Anton’s old boss – who doesn’t like being beat at her own game, and is determined not to let that happen by any means necessary. That it is a woman in this role that would be at home in Scorsese’ The Wolf of Wall Street is interesting – but the problem is that the fact that she is a woman is pretty much the only interesting thing about here.
The film was written and directed by Canadian Kim Nguyen – whose best film remains his breakthrough film, Rebelle (War Witch) from 2012 – about a female child soldier in Africa. Since then, he’s struggled to make something quite as interesting – Two Lovers and a Bear (2016) never really comes together, and I still haven’t seen his Eye of Juliet – which wasn’t well received either. Here, he definitely seems to be trying to come up with something more mainstream – more entertaining – than his previous films. I will say that The Hummingbird Project is never really boring. But it never really comes together in a meaningful way either. And I’m someone who devoured Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys (a real life story for people like this) – and normally loves stories like this. Here, it keeps seeming like as soon as the film is heading somewhere interesting, it stops and goes off in a different direction.

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