What’s more exciting than a race to lay a fiber-optic cable between Kansas City and New York? If your answer is “anything,” you might want to skip The Hummingbird Project, writer-director Kim Nguyen’s purported thriller about just such hardware.
The goal of the cable is to shave milliseconds off communication between the Kansas Electronic Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange to facilitate gainful trading—and torpor sets in at an equally impressive speed. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Vincent, a slick trader who has the idea to build the line and recruits his techie cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) to help him. Together they quit the firm of Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), who’s pissed about their sudden resignations and threatens to both go after Anton for stealing intellectual property and find out what exactly their surely nefarious plans are. To fund the project, Vincent reaches out to Bryan (Frank Schorpion), an investor who knits his eyebrows and expresses doubt at regular intervals even as he forks over millions.
Forget about Eva for a moment. Hayek, sporting black and gray hair, does a Cruella De Vil impersonation, hilariously spitting out lines such as “You don’t get to hide behind this neutrino messaging bullshit!” The character may be a threat to Vincent and Anton, but it’s impossible to take her seriously. The bulk of the challenges, therefore, are intrinsic to the project itself. Will they be able to drill through mountains? Will all the property owners agree to let them lay the cable underneath their land? Whatever will they do if these things don’t happen—just remain regular ol’ middle-class traders? Mon dieu!
These potential conflicts, needless to say, are less than compelling. There’s no sense that the cousins have actually risked anything by quitting their jobs—getting the funding is easy, while workers and equipment appear as if by magic. The only real hurdle involves Anton having to shave a millisecond off the line’s communication time, because Vincent promised Bryan 16 milliseconds but the line being built is at 17. That hair’s breadth difference would make it pointless, with no one getting rich.
The problem in this film is that these characters are so superficially drawn you don’t care whether they succeed or not. Eisenberg returns to The Social Network territory as the fast-talking wheeler and dealer—really, he’s like every character he’s ever played, only with the wrench of a critical medical diagnosis thrown in as a trial. Skarsgård, meanwhile, in glasses and a bald cap, makes Anton a little meatier as an IT genius who’s far from socially gifted, which occasionally trips them up. But like Hayek’s Eva, the character is often cartoonish, such as when he wackily runs from the FBI; Nguyen wedges in comedy with a crowbar.
With the filmmaker’s shapeless and dull script, an anticlimactic end was perhaps inevitable. And he directs it in such a bland and inconsequential way that you may wonder if what happened in the film did, in fact, happen. The Hummingbird Project is ultimately like the flapping of its namesake bird’s wings: You know it’s moving but it feels inert.
The Hummingbird Project opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.