By Kim Hughes
Canadian director Kim Nguyen’s curiously underwhelming dramedy The Hummingbird Project presents two of the square-peggiest characters in memory: fast-talking Vincent and IT savant Anton (Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård), cousins who are neither heroes nor anti-heroes but workaday schlubs betting that one millisecond can permanently raise their game and clobber their fiercely proprietary boss, Eva (Salma Hayek).
Buy into that peculiar premise — and assume every plot development as a high-minded metaphor for something else entirely — and The Hummingbird Project is a fun enough ride though one with significant logic bumps that may prove as intractable as the terrain its characters hope to traverse.
Vince and Anton conceive of building a subterranean fiber-optic cable line between Kansas and New Jersey to deliver vital stock trading information a heartbeat earlier than it’s delivered to the competition. That concept presumably didn’t crackle on the printed page; expectations run high for dramatic fireworks.
Suspension of disbelief kicks in with the duo’s first meeting with contractor Mark (Michael Mando) who patiently points out that to pull off the scheme, they’d need to tunnel through rock and rivers, private land and protected spaces. Expensive? Yes. Logistically labyrinthine? Most certainly. But anyways, with the help of an angel investor, they’re off with nary a sly wink or wry grin.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse game as scenery chewing Eva discovers the plan and vows to thwart it as Vince and Anton fight to keep the dream alive despite mounting (not to mention literally mountainous) obstacles. Absolutely no one pauses to take a breath or ask why this might not be the best-ever deployment of brain power and resources.
The film raises some resonant themes about the importance of family, loyalty, and the ethics of high-stakes commerce, the latter sussed out in five minutes by a curious waitress who cajoles Anton (who obviously never saw The Big Short) to share details of his and Vince’s wonky plan. That no one else on the team figures this out doesn’t inspire much faith in our leads, but faith is more or less moot in a film that seems so utterly ambivalent about what it’s trying to say.
Nguyen, who nabbed an Oscar for 2012’s harrowing War Witch, about an African child solider, knows how to tell a story. Yet The Hummingbird Project never gels despite good performances from Eisenberg and a dowdy Skarsgård, who play opposite sides of the same relentlessly striving coin… kind of like Rocky and Bullwinkle but without the comic relief.
The Hummingbird Project. Directed by Kim Nguyen. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård and Salma Hayek. Opens wide March 22.