July 15, 2019

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Tech spoof fails to find focus

Salma Hayek takes a villainous turn in The Hummingbird Project.</p>

Salma Hayek takes a villainous turn in The Hummingbird Project.

For a movie that’s all about data delivery, this often-entertaining but ultimately confused tech romp has a hard time getting its message out.

New York cousins Vinnie and Anton Zaleski have a scheme. Vinnie (The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg) is the fast-talking hustler, and Anton (played by an unexpectedly non-hot Alexander Skarsgard) is the stiff, socially awkward brain. The cousins want to run a fibre-optic cable from a Kansas electronic exchange to the New York Stock Exchange, straight through city streets, swamps, rivers and mountains, that will supposedly convey information a millisecond faster. In our data-driven age, this millisecond — the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings — can yield a billion-dollar advantage in high-frequency trading.

Undercutting their former Wall Street boss, the villainous Eva Torres (a silver-tipped Salma Hayek having a delicious time), the cousins convince venture capitalist Bryan Taylor (Winnipeg-born Frank Schorpion) to invest in their plan.

The super-secret project soon reaches a crisis point in Pennsylvania, with Vinnie cutting deals and putting out fires while Anton spends weeks coding in his bathrobe, struggling to knock that crucial millisecond off their circuit time. Eva indulges in psychological and physical sabotage, while hustling to get out her own competing system — something to do with microwave towers.

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For a movie that’s all about data delivery, this often-entertaining but ultimately confused tech romp has a hard time getting its message out.

New York cousins Vinnie and Anton Zaleski have a scheme. Vinnie (The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg) is the fast-talking hustler, and Anton (played by an unexpectedly non-hot Alexander Skarsgard) is the stiff, socially awkward brain. The cousins want to run a fibre-optic cable from a Kansas electronic exchange to the New York Stock Exchange, straight through city streets, swamps, rivers and mountains, that will supposedly convey information a millisecond faster. In our data-driven age, this millisecond — the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings — can yield a billion-dollar advantage in high-frequency trading.

Undercutting their former Wall Street boss, the villainous Eva Torres (a silver-tipped Salma Hayek having a delicious time), the cousins convince venture capitalist Bryan Taylor (Winnipeg-born Frank Schorpion) to invest in their plan.

The super-secret project soon reaches a crisis point in Pennsylvania, with Vinnie cutting deals and putting out fires while Anton spends weeks coding in his bathrobe, struggling to knock that crucial millisecond off their circuit time. Eva indulges in psychological and physical sabotage, while hustling to get out her own competing system — something to do with microwave towers.

The story feels current — you almost expect it to have been based on some Wall Street Journal exposé — and certainly, the theme of raising millions by talking up a product you might not be able to deliver is having a cultural moment. (You can check out more grifty schemes in zeitgeisty documentaries on the Fyre Festival and the Theranos corporation.)

But kind of like Vinnie and his big-talking dreams, Hummingbird promises a lot but ultimately under-delivers. Writer-director Kim Nguyen, a Montreal-based filmmaker who has worked in both French (Rebelle) and English (Two Lovers and a Bear), can’t quite decide if he’s making a savage satire of late capitalism, a light comic caper, a fast-moving techno thriller or an underdog tale.

Nguyen is aware of the absurdities that arise when people make money out of money, but he can’t capitalize on them the way The Big Short managed to. There is some intermittent comedy, as when the crew needs to buy permission to dig under Amish land and Vinnie launches into a tin-eared spiel about high-speed data delivery and 21st-century possibilities. "High speed is not our priority," an Amish elder tells him, as horses and buggies go by.

Despite some pacey thriller elements — the story, after all, centres on a high-speed race for high speed — Nguyen fails to generate sustained suspense.

Most crucially, Nguyen’s case for a crowd-pleasing David-and-Goliath matchup remains unconvincing. Eva is clearly a corporate monster — at one point she tells Anton she owns what’s inside his head. But the cousins’ smaller startup, while messy and brash, is basically driven by greed and grievance and, for Vinnie, daddy issues. It’s never really clear why should we care about Vinny’s fibre-optic cable more than Eva’s microwave tower.

And Vinnie is basically "a Jesse Eisenberg character" — that’s to say, a nervy, chippy tech geek. Though he’s given a sad subplot to soften him up, he remains a little too Lex Luthor-y to be a likable lead.

Skarsgard’s introverted Anton is a little more compelling, but even better is Michael Mando (Better Call Saul) as Mark Vega, the project’s beleaguered chief engineer. His nitty-gritty problems, such as digging horizontally through the Appalachian Mountains, seem the most interesting but get the least play.

That’s the thing. The film has some intriguing parts — in the end, probably too many intriguing parts. Hummingbird remains a tonally erratic project that struggles to find a point of view.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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