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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

Christina Smith – “A Fast-Paced Drama with Some Memorable Moments”

In Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project, what starts as an exciting race between dueling factions of Wall Street professionals ends as a statement piece reemphasizing the emptiness behind corporate greed, and more broadly, a condemnation of our fast-paced digital world.

The film follows a pair of cousins—played by Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård—who are determined to install a 1000-mile fiber tunnel connecting the Kansas Electronic Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange. Once complete, this enterprise should offer the opportunity to process stock market data before anyone else even has the chance to see it, giving the duo a distinct advantage over their former co-workers at a high-stakes e-commerce firm.

A key strength of the film revolves around some of its striking visual moments: a slow motion shot on a tennis ball rebounding against a net, or torrential rain framed practically at a standstill just outside of a barn door. These moments reflect the film’s preoccupation with speed, a component so paramount to the Zaleski cousins’ success that their transferring of data in 16 milliseconds—the length of a beat of a hummingbird’s wing—is considered debilitatingly slow.

The Hummingbird Project also features strong performances from its two leads. For one, Skarsgård plays at some fun—if not slightly archetypal—comedic moments as Anton Zaleski, an overworked tech whiz responsible for writing the code that will help his enterprise become the fastest on the market. When this goal quickly proves to be too nebulous to achieve outright, Skarsgård emotes a sense of exhausted frustration that is at times painfully relatable to watch. Just ask me during finals week how I’m doing, and I’ll give you a similar picture of someone at their wits’ end: hunched over a computer at all hours of the day, occasionally allowing a personal victory dance when an “aha” moment is finally met.

Additionally, it still proves fun to see Eisenberg play at his usual character type, being the quippy, fast-talking hustler. His Vinny Zaleski has all the trappings of a Zuckerbergian mastermind, but beyond that all-too-easy comparison, the character actually sets himself apart in that he doesn’t position himself as an all-knowing genius, instead relying on his cousin Anton for the technical aspects that will make his vision—a literal pipe dream—real. This dependence, as well as a twist relating to his health midway through the film, creates some interesting tension for the character; so, while this performance from Eisenberg is not a complete departure from the norm, there’s still a lot to appreciate about it. If anything, he proves to be a solid casting choice that delivers on expectations.

And yet, there are moments in which the film’s playing to type yields disappointment, namely concerning the characterization of Salma Hayek’s Eva Torres. While Hayek delivers another great performance and it’s refreshing to see someone other than a white man in a position of power on screen, her character—a Wall Street CEO determined to get results at any cost—often skews into campy territory amidst some otherwise heady drama. Indeed, certain choices, including a Bond-like scene in which she threatens a character in a spa, make Torres less potent as a threat, and in turn make it easier for other characters to dismiss her as bitchy or irrational. These moments make her an easier antagonist, sure, but not a more compelling one, leaving viewers to frame even her triumphs as relatively unimportant.

To that point, everyone else’s investment in the titular project feels similarly murky—Vinny, when asked, simply states that the project “is just something I need to do.” As for Anton, he apparently seeks isolation in a country home with his wife and kids, and it’s implied that the title project will provide him with the financial means to get there. But, the film starts with him already in the mess. We don’t see him question whether entering business with Vinny will really get him what he wants most, even as he faces insurmountable odds along the way from his intense fear of flying to actual jail time. Just how much does he really want that house? His reasoning is limited to a three-word reply, once he’s finally pressed about it: “Vinny asked me.”

One could say that that sense of emptiness is the point, that nothing is supposed to matter in the end and that the characters’ journey is simply to grapple with the meaninglessness of their actions. As contractor Mark Vega—portrayed by Better Call Saul’s Michael Mando in a standout supporting performance—observes, “It’s not the destination, but the people we meet, and the lessons we learn.”

But that logic ultimately still leads to a shrug. When a key struggle of the film proves to be obsolete, the viewer is left to wonder why they should be interested in the final takeaway, or even should have been invested in the characters’ journey in the first place. Overall, while The Hummingbird Project features some compelling visuals and performances, it stops just short of imparting the wisdom that it sets out to portray.

Zoe Thomas – “Two More Guys Try to Outsmart Wall Street”

The new film The Hummingbird Project stars Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård as cousins rebelling against their old employer (Salma Hayek) in the hopes of making millions from Wall Street. In an effort to highlight the dangers of a growing digital trading market, director/writer Kim Nguyen tells the story of two men chasing their dream but fails to go deeper and explore the issues within their relationship.

The film starts with the Zaleski cousins, Vincent and Anton, quitting their jobs in order to become their biggest competition. They plan to construct an underground high-speed cable going directly from Kansas City to Wall Street, even if that means going through fields, swamps, and mountains. In theory, this cable would send information about trading deals a few milliseconds faster than their previous employer’s system, with the end goal being 16 milliseconds (AKA the same speed as a hummingbird’s heartbeat, hence the title). Facing adversity through terminal illness and cutthroat competition, the cousins attempt to win big with their risky scheme.

Instead of being a smoldering vampire in True Blood or wrestling gorillas in The Legend of Tarzan, Skarsgård shows the depth of his acting craft here by transforming into Anton Zaleski, the clumsy computer genius responsible for the technical side of the cousins’ plan. There are moments when the classic Skarsgård tough guy character leaks through the cracks, but they are few in numbers as instead the actor is able to bring a fresh approach to the awkward traits helping keep the focus of the story on Anton.

With a sharp wit and a need to impress, Vincent Zaleski works as an excellent foil to the bumbling Anton. Eisenberg’s portrayal of Vincent Zaleski is strong but very reminiscent of his past roles in films like The Social Network or Now You See Me. The controlling and manipulative persona is Eisenberg’s trademark, however, it takes the viewers out of the moment when they try to remember if it’s Mark Zuckerberg or Vincent Zaleski making a plea to investors about believing in his new idea that will make them all rich. Essentially, Eisenberg delivers with bringing Vincent to life but fails to make this film seem new and innovative.

To inspire them through the darkest of times with their risky venture, the cousins often compare themselves to the story of David and Goliath. However, to call this a true underdog story would be to completely agree with Kylie Jenner being a self-made billionaire. Both of the Zaleski cousins are displayed as moderately successful traders at the beginning of the film, making their quest for wealth appear nothing more than corporate greed. They could be a “rags to riches” story if the rags were designer and bought at Nordstrom. The script does an excellent job of highlighting this hypocrisy in the Zaleskis, but this appears to be the only piece of social commentary viewers get.

Serving as the intended Goliath is Eva Torres (Hayek), the cousins’ former boss is the apparent unstoppable force and the film’s main antagonist. Hayek delivers a stellar performance of this powerful CEO with a vengeance, but this is only the external conflict for the plot. The internal Goliath the cousins face is their relationship with each other, but the film gives little attention to this conflict that could have made The Hummingbird Project different from the countless other “let’s outwit Wall Street” movies out there.

The relationship between the two cousins is better seen as the parasitic relationship of the artist and their agent. Anton, the artist, is the master behind the coding which is the key for the Zaleski cousins to get ahead of Torres and the competition. Taking advantage of the artist makes Vincent appear to be the agent as he convinces Anton to follow his plan no matter the consequences. This relationship is perfectly set to add another layer of meaning for the film but the chaos is never unleashed.

The negative effects of the cousins’ relationship on Anton could have best shown through his interactions with his family. His wife (Sarah Goldberg) and children are left behind at the start of construction for the cable, with this separation initiated by Vincent. Instead of turning them into a physical representation of the toxic relationship, they become forgettable to the viewer. It’s a shame that the script chose to stop at the surface of this relationship rather than letting the meaning of the film reach beyond only a search for riches.

Overall, the film made it feel as though the viewer had to search for a deeper meaning that was not there. For a story not limited by the truth, it took few chances on trying to emphasize the issues between the cousins. By focusing on the competition for the fastest processing system rather than an internal struggle, any substantial takeaways from the film are short lived and disappear after 16 milliseconds.

The Hummingbird Project is currently in limited release.

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