Review: 'The Hummingbird Project'

A high-tech grift goes horribly awry in film that screened at Cinequest
Disney's 'Dumbo' is impeccably art-directed, but hectic and starchy.

Welcome to another episode of Bad Hair Theater: Kim Nguyen's The Hummingbird Project, which played at this year's Cinequest, is a moral drama that illustrates the physical effects of bad behavior. If we do wrong, it will be reflected not just in our faces but in the very hair upon our heads.

The rackety NYC schemer Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) wears a kind of Mark Anthony toupee with bangs. His cousin Anton (an often-droll Alexander Skarsgard) is a bundle of panic and obsessions, and these anxieties apparently triggered a case of male pattern baldness. Michael Mando, who plays the fearsome Nacho on Better Call Saul, is Mark Veg, a drilling expert whom the other two have hired on their secret project to make billions. As usual, Mando has done without hair completely.

The badass corporate villainess, Eva (Salma Hayek)—not an antagonist but a straight-up villain—sometimes descends by helicopter to make her threats. Eva is all the more intimidating for having the best coiffure in the movie. With tinted Gloria Steinem shades and streaky black-silver hair, Hayek looks like Cruella de Ville's hot prima.

The gaff of the three guys is a project whose ambitions are as high as its importance is insignificant. Vince, the son of striving Russian immigrants, is trying to get out in the world. His idea came to him in a vision, after he was KO'd in an accident. He will create a fiber optics line that will deliver prices from a Kansas City stock exchange to Wall Street, in a fraction of a second shorter than his competitors.

Said line must be straight as an arrow, through the swamps, the rivers and the mountains. He must buy thousands of four-foot wide clearances from property owners, ultimately through the pastures of frowning farmers who don't want anything newfangled on their turf. Getting this done requires the stealth and cunning of a hoodwinking Eva, who believes Vincent and Anton took proprietary code with them when they left her employ.

The Hummingbird Project gets its title from the instant it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings—the milliseconds Anton is trying to shave off the KC/NYC connection.

We can count on an audience that likes to watch people work, an audience that will admire fast-talking hustlers, no matter what their grift. But eventually Nguyen plays softball with the conniving characters, who at one point drill their way through protected federal land with cargo helicopters and barges. Eisenberg doesn't spare the weaselry, as he did when playing Lex Luthor and Mark Zuckerberg. His personal low here is bleating a real Eisenbergian bleat in response to an Amish farmer (Johan Heldenbergh) who is telling him to go away: "Where will we find common ground?"

Skarsgard's covert acting as a bathrobe-wrapped hunched-over cybersavant-on-the-spectrum is more subtle. The simplest analogies can either transfix him or boggle him. Told by Anton that they're in a David and Goliath situation, Anton blinks and says "We're David?" During a long siege at a hotel room, he's holed up trying to perfect his code. His wife Masha (Sarah Goldberg) is scolding him over the phone. She tells him not to eat junk food unless he wants diabetes. Her words visibly stun Anton, as if he'd never heard that diabetes sometimes befalls fast food eaters.

Trying to lighten this movie, which gets stuck in damp, dark, gloomy spaces, Manto tells a story about a driller's ultimate nightmare, caused by builders failing to cope with the important principle that raw sewage ought to flow downhill.

This crapshow metaphor doesn't have much of a punchline, but it does have a point. Nguyen has a worthy old-movie idea—Arthur Miller material—about the conflict between the immigrants' dire need to hustle, and the moral corrosion that ridiculously big money brings.

But what starts like Sorkin ends like Frank Capra; said corrosion doesn't just affect Vincent's scalp but his stomach as well. He finds too-easy redemption through illness (an old movie custom that ought to stay archaic).

The Hummingbird Project
R; 111 Mins.
3Below Theaters & Lounge, San Jose

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