Who would’ve thought that a film would be made about men attempting to build a fiber-optic cable line from Kansas to New Jersey to beat their competition in market trading, and it is NOT based on a true story? And yet here we are with The Hummingbird Project (2019), starring the unlikely and against-type pairing of Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Sarsgard as cousins blinded by greed in their goal to be faster than the competition. It’s unfortunate to see the filmmakers desperately trying to make the dry subject matter compelling. The quirky tone and performances, and the polished visual style, can’t quite make up for what ends up being a fairly unengaging story.
Eisenberg and Sarsgard play Vincent and Anton, who work for Salma Hayek’s Eva Torres at a New York company that specializes in High Frequency Trading within the stock market. They see an opportunity with a competitor (Frank Schorpion) to build a cable that would increase their speed by a few milliseconds, which in this business is enough to make millions. Once Vincent and Anton quit their jobs in New York to begin this new venture, Eva becomes intent on destroying her newfound competition. Will the cousins be able to overcome all obstacles and build their cable?
If you weren’t enthralled by that brief plot synopsis, it’s fair to say the film will not do much to entice you anymore than I just did. A lot of the film’s failure to engage comes down to the fact that drilling a hole in the ground is simply not exciting enough to build a narrative around. I have a feeling writer-director Kim Nguyen knows this, so he tries very hard to liven up the proceedings with a quirky, darkly comic tone, which comes through almost exclusively in the performances of the two leads.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Vincent as the man-in-charge, one who won’t let anything stop him from getting what he wants. Verbally aggressive and chattery in just about every conversation he has in this film, Eisenberg plays very much the same role he’s been playing since his fast-talking Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010). Thankfully, there are a couple moments of vulnerability that keep him from being completely abrasive. One scene of Vincent getting a massage sees the character beginning to fall apart, letting Eisenberg stretch his acting in a way that the rest of the film does not really allow him to do. And still, his twitchy, fidgety performance tics are beginning to wear thin.
Much more interesting (while sadly having less screen-time) is Alexander Sarsgard as Anton, the balding, introverted, anti-social coder with a few tics of his own. Sarsgard clearly revels in playing so against-type, his line delivery and random outbursts providing most of the entertainment value here. Anton’s fear of flying becomes readily apparent in a very funny scene, while another shows him dancing down the hallway upon completing a very difficult coding task. These small moments show Sarsgard operating on a completely different wavelength than his usual fare, and it’s a joy to see him in a role like this, even if the film around him doesn’t entirely work.
Kim Nguyen does not spend time setting up the story, dropping us into these guys’ lives in the moments they start the ball rolling on their plan. Theoretically, this should aid in creating a propulsive pace, but it becomes clear that the film cannot sustain an urgency when it comes to the construction and drilling of holes in the ground. This makes all the quirkiness of protagonists, along with the off-kilter string-plucking of Yves Gourmeur’s score, feel like style covering up a boring narrative, instead of style supporting and enhancing the story. Even Salma Hayek’s character, who serves as the primary antagonist, deems too one-note to have much of an impact.
And yet, The Hummingbird Project is handsomely produced, with a muted, Fincher-esque color palette and crisp cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc. The use of slo-mo at key points play into the film’s interest in time as a theme, proving effective in its final shots while unintentionally giving attention to the sluggish pacing in other moments earlier on. Even with an impressive cast (Sarsgard is the MVP) and an eye for the cinematic, The Hummingbird Project can’t quite overcome the tedious plot and unengaging subject matter, as hard as Nguyen tries to liven things up.
Rated R, The Hummingbird Project is now playing in select theaters.