The Hummingbird Project is an odd movie. At once a financial thriller, a workplace comedy, and a character study of obsessives, this strange curiosity fails to commit to any one tone. Shame too, considering that its command of each tone is rather impressive. The value and the enjoyment comes piecemeal, the whole not quite reaching the sum of its parts. Even so, in the days since watching it, I’ve found my thoughts circling back to it quite a bit. Although it often fails as an entertainment, it just as often succeeds at being interesting. The Hummingbird Project may not be the movie I expected, but it’s one that depicts a world of which laypersons like myself are likely unaware, which is one of cinema’s greatest powers as a medium.
When it comes to the stock market, transactions can go from being beneficial to being a liability in a matter of milliseconds. As such, power brokers bank on having the fastest access to market updates. Cousins Vincent and Anton Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård, respectively) have decided to quit their jobs at a powerful firm to focus on building an underground fiber optic line directly connecting the Kansas Electronics Exchange to their offices in the northeast. By doing so, they can shave a single millisecond off of the current information transmission time, and it’s this millisecond which will make them kings of the trade.
After teaming up with Mark (Michael Mando, scene stealer), a contractor who specializes in underground drilling, the newly formed trio begins a race against the clock to bust through miles of bureaucratic red tape (and the Appalachian mountains) to dominate an industry which sees them as disposable. This, of course, doesn’t bode well with their previous employer, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), who begins her own campaign to not just outdo their potential transmission speed, but to destroy their efforts in any way she can.
What makes the film so interesting is that amidst this competition, there are no real heroes or villains. Sure, Vincent and Anton are our protagonists, but they aren’t necessarily the most virtuous types. Same goes for Torres. She’s a savvy businesswoman who appears to take care of her employees. Her antagonistic quest is not one based in vengeance, or even so much in ego. It’s just business, and business is what she does.
What writer/director Kim Nguyen (War Witch) is going for here is presumably an ensemble epic, covering every ounce of logistics required for the competing factions to succeed. Vincent has to get through miles of paperwork while convincing his financiers that the increasing odds of failure are no reason to stop backing the project. Anton needs to improve upon a near-perfect algorithm to shave fractions of milliseconds off of processing times. Mark has to literally drill through mountains, requisitioning tools from all around the world. And when a particularly upsetting medical diagnosis enters the mix, the urgency (and unfortunately, the tonal inconsistency) kicks into overdrive. Meanwhile, we see the inner workings of Torres’ plan as well, as she wrestles with the notion that if her competitors succeed, her empire will be severely threatened.
There’s a lot happening all at once, and to his credit, Nguyen balances it all quite well. If the tone is off, the pacing is spot on. The minutes fly by with a metered out tension that works much more often than it doesn’t. Films that try to juggle simultaneous events often fail at finding a rhythm (check any movie with a ticking time bomb for reference), but that’s not the case here. It’s easy to keep up, even while learning the ins and outs of a mysterious business.
Jesse Eisenberg is a talented actor, albeit one with a limited range. But within said range, there is no one better. His Vincent is as squirrely as an intensely motivated number cruncher/salesman should be. His love for his cousin feels real, even if on the surface it appears to be in service of selfish aims. Eisenberg finds this density of characterization and makes it sing. Skarsgård’s Anton, with his comically bald head and vulture-like posture (a smart physical choice which speaks to his disconnect from the average person), plays an oddball savant with touching accuracy. It’s his performance which wins the movie, even if the characterization itself is uneven from scene to scene.
Perhaps the biggest criticism I could lob at The Hummingbird Project is that there just isn’t enough Salma Hayek. Between this and The Hitman’s Bodyguard, it’s clear that she’s having fun with her role choices of late, even if the movies in which she finds herself are middling. She’s fantastic here, and she really understands the material. She’s antagonistic without being villainous, sultry without being objectified, and she plays a competitive capitalist with cold accuracy. It’s not easy to forget that a character is being played by someone so iconic as she, but she’s just that good.
Overall, The Hummingbird Project is worth seeing. It’s a fascinating curiosity made with care, but it’s just a rewrite or two away from being a high-yield investment of your time.
Opened in Philadelphia March 22, 2019, at Ritz Five. landmarktheatres.com
That was a stock market pun.