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‘The Hummingbird Project’ Reviewed Seven Ways

We had our team of interns all review the same movie. It was interesting experiment.
Hummingbird Project
By  · Published on April 8th, 2019

M.G. McIntyre – “Bird on a Wire”

Halfway through The Hummingbird Project, the new feature from Kim Nguyen, Vincent Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg) stands in a field somewhere between Kansas and New Jersey, surveying the path ahead of his company’s mammoth undertaking. A small billboard stands in the barren field next to him that reads “Jesus is here – read John 14:6” — “I am the way and the path and the light – no one comes to the father except through me”. In this case, though, “the father” is billions of dollars, the path is thousands of miles of fiber optic cable, and what you need to get through is a mountain of granite in the Appalachians. But close enough.

The Hummingbird Project follows cousins Vincent and Anton Zaleski (Alexander Skarsgård) on their quest to shave a handful of milliseconds off trading bandwidth by burying a straight fiber optic cable from Kansas to New Jersey. It sounds like it could be boring, but the film manages to take a banal and somewhat dry subject and, much like The Big Short or Spotlight before it, turn out engaging drama, taking the incremental path of the fiber line and turning it into a metaphor for children of immigrants and their relationship with success in America.

The main problem with its narrative is, unlike those docudrama films, The Hummingbird Project isn’t based on true events, though it feels very much like a story that should be. The stakes aren’t quite high enough, the story isn’t quite interesting enough, and the characters aren’t quite well drawn enough to be completely believable when you realize none of this ever happened. Certain storytelling decisions, like one character’s health problems or another character’s relationship with their family, feel like lazy plot devices when not directed by actual events.

There are some interesting performances. Skarsgård’s casting as the brilliantly neurotic (and balding) programmer Anton seems like a strange choice given his movie star looks and imposing height, but he manages to pull off a nuanced performance in an otherwise cookie cutter role. Eisenberg meanwhile seems to be struggling to distinguish himself as Vincent, showing vague shadows of his performance in The Social Network but lacking the raw ambition that made that role memorable. Michael Mando (of Better Call Saul) as the project supervisor Mark Vega manages to steal most of the scenes he’s in and delivers one of the more memorable monologues on the topic of “Positive Shit.” The biggest crime of The Hummingbird Project is its misuse of Salma Hayek. As the Zaleski’s former employer and rival Eva Torres, Hayek stands in for the all-powerful and mega-rich Wall Street scions that the cousins aspire to be with their fiber optic project. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough context to make her character interesting or compelling in any way, and she simply serves as a shapeless villain, lacking even a compelling scene or two to establish her power over her two former employees.

Overall, The Hummingbird Project feels best defined by what it isn’t; it’s not a true life story of money and power, nor is it a well-drawn drama of relatable human greed, or even an interesting character study of two cousins, the children of immigrants, and their quest for what they consider to be success. It is an opportunity for Eisenberg and Skarsgård to engage in a few scenes of dueling dialogue when they aren’t being overshadowed by Michael Mando’s scene-stealing. Though that is entertaining, it isn’t particularly memorable, and in the end, this film, much like the characters in it, doesn’t quite get the job done.

Samantha Olthof – “The Sin of Greed”

The Hummingbird Project opens with cousins Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton Zalesky (Alexander Skarsgård) abandoning their demanding Wall Street boss Eva (Salma Hayek) for an insane bid to own the markets – drilling a tunnel for fiber optic cable from the Kansas City Stock Exchange to Wall Street in order to improve transaction signal time by one millisecond. Seemingly insignificant, this one millisecond head start over competitors is the advantage that could put them at the head of the queue and net untold wealth. Hayek’s team is trying to shorten transaction times in other ways, and she takes their departure personally. She pits all of her resources against the cousins to try and stop their project – or render it obsolete.

It’s an interesting concept – a microscopic technological discovery that could rocket a pair of nobodies ahead of every financial corporation in the world. They know that they wouldn’t be able to maintain the advantage long; the nature of technology is obsolescence. Get in, make their money, and get out seems like a surprisingly reasonable idea for such a strange scheme. However, the plot gets bogged down in confusing conflicts. While glazing over what seems like the most significant roadblocks to their plan (like remotely drilling a straight line tunnel through a protected mountain range in a single shot), they break the budget when they need to upgrade a consumable piece of technology (a drill bit).The musical choices are equally inexplicable. Moments that should be pensive are lined with near-horror beats. A sequence of rather interesting scenes of industrial drilling equipment is overlaid with rambunctious country music.

Skarsgård’s performance is by far the highlight of this film. A large man, he shrinks in every space he enters as though trying to pass below notice. He is largely kept separate from the drilling project, working hunched over a laptop in dark rooms, and Skarsgård takes full advantage of the space he is given to rage, obsess, cower, and despair. He is given not only the sole sympathetic motivation for wanting to break this technical milestone, but also the only believable motive in the entire film. His wish for solitude and peace to pursue his passions (coding and family) lead him to trust enough in Vincent’s scheme to put his future on the line in search of one spare millisecond.

The other characters seem largely one-dimensional. Hayek’s Eva seems to have a single purpose in life – ruining Anton by either stopping the fiber project, or by one-upping them technologically. Her rage against Anton for leaving her company seems inexplicable. She claims to care deeply about him, but in their one scene together that is not antagonistic, their characters seem at best lukewarm to each other. Anton and Vincent’s relationship is equally shallow. Vincent uses Anton like a tool, only seeming to show him kindness when he is on the verge of falling apart. Their warmth together in familial scenes seems to contradict their professional relationship, but that contrast is given no screen-time in which to develop or implode.

The lessons at the end of The Hummingbird Project feel entirely unearned. Poor Michael Mando had to actually speak the line “it’s not about the destination, but the people we meet and the lessons we learned”. For some reason, both Vincent and Anton seem disenfranchised with Wall Street, though that is based off a single conversation with a waitress about lemon farmers. Unlike The Wolf of Wall Street’s charismatic and unapologetic characters, Vincent and Anton are too tepid to inspire much passion. Because the characters seem so flat, their inevitable downfall is neither tragic nor cathartic. If they had taken the time to delve deeper into the cousins’ relationship to each other and their personal motivations, perhaps their final interaction would feel more meaningful. The Hummingbird Project is a film that will pass in and out of your memory within milliseconds – like a single flap of a hummingbird’s wings.

Kristen Reid – “Eisenberg and Skarsgard Shine on Wall Street”

In Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project, two cousins (Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skårsgard) are trying to do the proposedly impossible– dig a four inch wide, 1000 mile long tunnel across state lines and directly under the Appalachians in order to get a one millisecond edge on the rest of Wall Street. To those outside the business sphere of influence, the idea seems abstract and complicated at first but writer-director Nguyen is able to keep it intriguing, no doubt due to the major star power in the film’s leads.

Eisenberg leads as Vincent Zaleski, a hot-headed Wall Street trader contracted by mega-rich Wall Street executive Brian Taylor (Frank Schorpion) to run a high-speed fiber optic line from the Kansas Stock Exchange to the New York Stock Exchange. He enlists the help of Mark Vega (Better Call Saul and Orphan Black alum Michael Mando) to head the crew while he deals with the business logistics and his cousin designs the necessary code. Cousin Anton, played by Skårsgard, is a walking, talking coder trope suffering from a variety of anxiety problems including an intense panic attack before flying which Vincent lovingly refers to as “an Anton moment.” In an effort to dull down Skårsgard’s movie star good looks, he’s hidden behind Coke bottle glasses and a terrible haircut, therefore visually confirming his role as charismatic Vincent’s nerdy counterpart.

The dichotomy, as obvious as it is, works well. The two actors have great chemistry which allows the audience to stay invested in the characters while the constant technical jargon of milliseconds and algorithms passes over some of our heads. In fact, it’s Eisenberg’s quick-talking narcissism that drives the film right from the start. When explaining the technicalities of that one quintessential millisecond to Mark, it’s clear his brash confidence is infectious. Mark, and consequently the audience, may not fully understand the complexities of the tunnel’s effect on the stock market, but it’s clear he’s willing to do whatever it takes to complete it.

Where The Hummingbird Project struggles is in the script. The dialogue is too often heavy-handed and obvious, almost as if Nguyen doesn’t trust the viewer to grasp the stakes without blatantly stating them. This continues constantly throughout the 110-minute run time. After suffering from hallucinations and debilitating pain, Vincent finds out halfway through completion of the project that he has stomach cancer and mere months to live. Of course, he can’t take the necessary time off for chemotherapy and when he asks how this will affect his prognosis, the oncologist tells him bluntly “it would seriously put [his] life at risk”. The line is Vincent’s life and his choice to ignore his cancer and continue working reflects this.

Later in the film, Anton attempts to explain the magnitude of his work to a waitress in Kansas, presumably not smart enough to understand Wall Street on her own, and talks down to her, mimicking the way he speaks to his young daughter. The scene provides some insight into the real-life results of the line but still feels harshly expository. Similarly, Anton’s family seems like an afterthought whose only purpose is to prove he is not as much of a loner as he first appears. He has a beautiful wife (Barry’s Sarah Goldberg) and two young daughters that motivate him to finish the project, even as a constant stream of obstacles block him from doing so. Unlike Vincent, who is motivated by money and notoriety, Anton just wants a home in the country, away from the distraction of Manhattan where he can code in peace and observe hummingbirds in nature.

The difference in the cousins’ motivation does not divide them but rather brings them closer together; Vincent loves his off-kilter cousin dearly and wants him to get his house upstate perhaps even more than Anton wants it himself. The duo carries the film well, even with a clunky script weighing them down. While lacking subtlety in key moments, Nguyen is still successful in convincing the audience to care about the intense quest for just one millisecond.

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