One of my favourite things about cinema is that a film never washes over me the same way twice. How a movie’s performances, score, and themes affect me depends on my mood that day. I’ve changed my stance on many films after a second viewing. I can’t shake the feeling that writer/director Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project caught me on the right day. I’m tired of shows like Billions, Bad Banks, and Succession and their stories of awful people doing awful things. And with daily news barrages of what’s going on in the Whitehouse, I’ve had my fill of assholes. The Hummingbird Project delivers greedy people in spades. Yet Nguyen’s film kept my aversion at bay. Mostly.
Performance-wise, The Hummingbird Project is in large part a two-hander. It centres on Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton Zaleski (Alexander Skarsgård), two cousins who work in high-speed trading. These guys don’t work leads on the phone or buy stocks based on their gut-feelings. They’re a new breed of financial shark that doesn’t bother getting their fins wet. These modern Wall Street-types use computers to buy and sell shares. They use advanced algorithms that complete transactions in less than the blink of an eye.
The cousins devise a plan to lay an unobstructed fibre optic line all the way from Kansas to New York. This information fast lane would shave off a few fractions of a second from transactions, giving them an edge over their competition. Shaving down those precious milliseconds could earn them tens of millions of dollars. But realizing the information fast lane seems impossible. It requires snapping up occupied land and then running the line through forests, rivers, and even mountains. But Vincent doesn’t sweat the small stuff. With a money man in his corner, and his genius programmer cousin at his side, Vincent attempts to will his dream into existence.
None of the actors in The Hummingbird Project turn in their best work. Though Michael Mando stands out each time he shows up onscreen. Chalk the ho-hum performances up to Nguyen’s script which doesn’t craft compelling lead characters. There aren’t any good guys in this film, but the story paints Salma Hayek’s Eva Torres as the chief antagonist. She’s a rich and entitled corporate head-honcho, full of mean quips and bluster, to the point of cliché. She sneers, threatens, and talks a big game – you never doubt that she means business. But even as she makes threats you don’t feel any sense of menace.
Skarsgård gives a broad performance with his programmer/family man who seems like he’s on the spectrum. Skarsgård underwent a notable physical transformation for the role. Wearing his male pattern baldness like a crown, Skarsgård constantly slouches and has a plump belly. He looks more like 30 Rocks’ Pete Hornberger than True Blood’s Eric Northman. Anton would rather code until he’s bleary-eyed than make eye contact. But he’s the only person in the film with a hint of empathy.
If you’ve watched Eisenberg act before, then you know what he brings to this film. He speaks in staccato outbursts, conveys a pissy attitude, and seethes with indignation. He also walks with the wooden gate of a man whose suit is two sizes too small. I find Eisenberg’s schtick hard to root for on a good day. He’s the film’s protagonist, but indeed no hero. And nothing about Vincent’s personality or Eisenberg’s performance spoke to me.
The Hummingbird Project’s characters aren’t deep or engaging. I didn’t care about them or want to see where they ended up. What hooked me, instead, was the film’s themes. We know terrible people do terrible things. What interests me are the factors that drive them and the mechanisms that enable them.
The film isn’t subtle about its core messages. Nguyen batters viewers with images of digging and penetration and even focuses on the physical manifestation of Vincent’s moral rot. But nothing about the film feels like a revelation. Selfish people do terrible things, and they’re emboldened by greedy enablers.
Despite all the factors working against the film, it kept me entertained for almost two hours. Credit Yves Gourmeur’s absorbing score, occasional doses of Michael Mando, and the movie’s overall bizarre tone for keeping me dialled in. The plot is so outlandish you would swear it’s based on a true story. The Humming Bird project failed to take me on an emotional journey, but I still didn’t mind going along for the ride. But I suspect this film just caught me on the right day.