The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest” demonstrates that the only thing more vaporous than the dreams expired in the dot-gone world is a movie that tries to turn dot-gone on its head with a wish-fulfilling, O. Henry-type fantasy. There’s something apt about pic looking as threadbare as it is and playing even worse; this would-be comedy, about a motley crew of Silicon Valley geeks beating all odds and obstacles in their quest to invent the next-generation computer, feels entirely a part of an already faded go-go era. Pic is too late by a mile and rightly dumped in a few theaters by Fox, which will doubtless send it to video bins faster than you can say gigabyte.
Po Bronson’s 1997 novel was very much a part of the Silicon golden age; a quick movie or TV adaptation should have been done then. Delaying the project until after the tech bubble burst made it necessary to surgically attach the post-crash element into an already silly story, which just adds to the sense of desperation that comes as scene after comic scene doesn’t work. It’s an effort the combined and ill-fitting talents of screenwriters Jon Favreau and Gary Tieche, exec producer Harold Ramis and helmer Mick Jackson can’t salvage.
When Andy (Adam Garcia) decides to quit his cushy marketing post at Omega Logic, it’s with the dream of working on “something meaningful” — a sentiment he reveals seemingly several dozen times before 15 minutes have elapsed. He thinks that “something” lies at La Honda Institute, a tech think tank run by Hank (Gregory Jbara) but really controlled by a digital guru named Francis Benoit (Enrico Colantoni), who resents a marketing guy like Andy stepping on his turf. Andy’s immediately slotted with the no-win project of devising a computer that can be sold for $99 and must cobble together a team to forge it.
Enter the clowns, in the form of germophobe Darrell (Jake Busey), Salman (Anjul Nigam) and obese, non-socialized Tiny (Ethan Suplee), who — after unwatchable and unlistenable fits and starts that are mostly excuses for weak grossout gags — come up with a virtual computer viewed via a hologram. Andy is less successful at his new, scaled-down pad in a rooming house, trying to appeal to comely neighbor and sculptor Alisa (Rosario Dawson). Andy’s running line with her, variations of “isn’t this the place in the movie where we kiss?,” epitomizes this movie’s truly limp sense of humor.
Dawson does everything she can to send some natural, human vibes into all of this, but her relaxed grace is nothing against the rest of the cast, who are directed into an actor’s version of stereotype hell. Garcia is perhaps the worst of all, since his type is the nice guy with a grin, which he overplays excruciatingly. Colantoni’s Francis, who ends up conspiring with various corporate swindlers to rob the guys of their invention, at least plays his type with the cool level-headedness of a good James Bond villain. Yet even a fine actor like Dan Butler, as Omega’s crazed owner, is pushed past his breaking point in the hopeless search for a laugh.
Unexpectedly, long after this dreadful display has overstayed its welcome, one stunning image actually appears: The refined hologram computer that Andy’s squad unveils in the end is an astonishing tool of the future, with the beamed image simply manipulated by fingers touching it. Because the success fantasy surrounding this image is so dreadful and ridiculous, though, the full impact of the machine –something worth pondering — is cancelled out.
Jackson’s rein on the production appears to have been loose at best, given the generally cheap look of the whole project, extending to consistently erratic editing and a poor soundtrack.