The Hummingbird Project (2018)
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Twitchy, wide-eyed Jesse Eisenberg is perfect as the edgy and on the edge Vincent, putting out a series of unfortunate fires in his bizarre quest to drill a straight fibre cable pipe from Kansas to New Jersey. Better is balding nerd, hunch-backed, awkward code crunching cousin Anton, played by unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgard in equal doses of clown tear sadness, and physical slapstick. Their escape from and battle with Cruella Devillish Salma Hayek (strong boss Eva), stirs the plot pot.
"The Hummingbird Project" is an exercise in determined futility, as a couple of misguided geniuses in search of life-altering, get rich quick adventure, get in way over their heads as their world spirals out of control. And though the film veers off common sense tracks, there's no denying it's power to cajole viewers along for the crazy ride.
Although this is a well-acted film, its momentum is a bit erratic. The storyline never loses its energy but the plot sometimes takes peculiar detours. This ambitious enterprise is fraught with the emotional imbalance of its two dissimilar protagonists, one a highly calculating salesman (Eisenberg) and the other a neurotic computer wiz (Skarsgard). We discover that each one has motivations of his own. As considerable opposites, they keep the film's dynamic engaging.
Some of the film's best moments are when these two aspiring masters of the universe find the core principles behind their work being challenged by the citizenry they cross paths with. The film takes a mild-mannered look at the ethics of the project but mostly lets the audience judge for itself. Recommended as workmanlike filmmaking on obscure but compelling material.
We also learn that one millisecond can translate into hundreds of millions in profits, which is why cousins Vincent and Anton walk away from their jobs at the Eva Torres brokerage firm to pursue their dream of shaving that single millisecond. Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) is the fast-talking visionary and deal-maker, while Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) is the computer programming whiz. Yes, you read that correctly. Sex symbol Skarsgard ("True Blood", "Big Little Lies") plays a paunchy, balding, computer nerd with zero social skills. He also delivers the film's most enjoyable dance moves ... it's a moment to which any programmer can relate.
If any of the above (other than Anton's dance) seems the least bit exciting or enticing, you should know that the bulk of the film deals with the digging and drilling (there's even a montage) required to lay the fiber optic cable that will allow this extra-quick data delivery. Their plan is to tunnel from Kansas City to New Jersey in a perfectly straight line. Because of this, we get conversations with homeowners, conversations with Amish, conversations with drilling experts, and conversations with those who want this to happen, and those who don't. Have you ever thought about drilling through a granite mountain that is located in the middle of a park? Neither have I, and I wouldn't have thought of it again if not for writing this review.
To clarify, this is a story that seems like it could be true, but isn't. Most of the screen time is devoted to either underground drilling, computer programming, or intellectual property. And while I'm sure each of these categories have their fans, most will agree the transfer to cinema does not come off especially entertaining. In fact, it's so dry that the filmmaker felt the need to include a cancer sub-plot in hopes that we might find Vincent a bit more appealing as a character. It should be noted that since his Oscar nomination for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, Mr. Eisenberg has displayed a remarkable lack of variation in the roles he's chosen and characters he's played. At this point, we mostly just find him annoying, rather than brilliant or even mildly interesting.
Salma Hayek plays Eva Torres, former boss of the cousins, and now laser-focused in not letting the boys win. Ms. Hayek is given relatively little screen time, and is portrayed as the villain ... although her goals are no different than Vincent's and Anton's. Michael Mando plays Mark Vega, the partner and drilling expert the boys choose to project manage this undertaking. Mr. Mando is best known as Nacho from both "Better Call Saul" and "Breaking Bad". Ayisha Issa brings a momentary jolt to the proceedings as a mountain driller, but the film simply drags when neither Mr. Skarsgard nor Ms. Hayek are on screen.
Technology is a very difficult topic to make visually entertaining. I'm not talking about the high-tech special effects that go into making the wildly successful superhero movies that are so popular these days. No, I'm referring to actual technology ... programming and data analysis. The list of technology-focused films includes: SNEAKERS, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, OFFICE SPACE, HACKERS, WAR GAMES, SWORDFISH, and THE IMITATION GAME. The best of these understood that the story around the technology was more vital than the actual programming being done. And all of them were wise enough to avoid drilling and digging. Then again, none of the others featured a dancing Skarsgard.
Couple of comments: this movie is written and directed by little known (on the US side anyway) Canadian Kim Nguyen. Here he brings a story that could have a major impact on how stocks are traded on Wall Street. Within minutes, it is clear that the vibe Nguyen is going for is Adam McKay's "The Big Short". In and of itself there is nothing wrong with that. Except that here, it simply doesn't work all that well. First of all, we need to make a leap of faith that stick traders getting data in 16 milliseconds rather than 17 milliseconds (think about that) will cause a tornado in the stock markets. Second, the movie makes a number of side bars that divert from the major story line (sorry, I don't want to divulge more than that). On the plus side, the movie is helped enormously by the lead performances. Jesse Eisenberg (as Vinnie) and, even better, an almost unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgård (as Anton) truly carry the film on their shoulders. Salma Hayek's screen time (as Eva Torres) is all too brief, unfortunately. Bottom line: the movie is not bad per se, but neither is is compelling. It all feels like a lost opportunity.
"The Hummingbird Project" premiered at last Fall's Toronto International Film Festival to so-so acclaim, and the movie now is getting a limited theater release. It opened this weekend at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati, and the Sunday early evening screening where I saw this at was attended poorly (8 people, including myself). I can't see this playing in the theater for more than just a few weeks. If you are interested in a "Big Short"-wanna-be that falls, well, a bit short but that has its moments, I encourage you to check it out, be it in the theater (if you can), or VOD, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, and draw your own conclusion.