There probably are laws in six or seven states against any actor having as much wink-wink, nudge-nudge fun as Tim Robbins obviously does in “Antitrust.” Exceptionally well cast as a computer software mogul whose resemblance to Bill Gates isn’t the least bit coincidental, Robbins appears almost indecently amused by his own slyly understated portrayal of a smooth, self-assured sociopath. His performance greatly enhances an otherwise routine paranoid thriller, and could generate just enough critical and audience interest for pic to post better-than-expected B.O. numbers. Ancillary prospects are even rosier, and cult-fave status — particularly among propeller-heads, computer geeks and anti-Microsoft fanatics — is a definite possibility.
Ryan Phillippe, the nominal star of the piece, plays Milo Hoffman, a brilliant young computer whiz who’s eager to join his buddies in a high-tech, garage-based startup company. (Just to make sure we accept someone so dreamily hunky as a big-brain techie, Phillippe dons glasses each time he gets digital.) Milo and his friends want to make the world safe for truth, justice and open source codes by perfecting a “killer app” breakthrough. But Milo quickly forgets about his idealistic notions when he’s offered a lucrative job by NURV, the software corporation founded and operated by billionaire Gary Winston (Robbins).
Winston employs dozens of bright young superachievers, using equal measures of ingratiating chumminess and intimidating authoritarianism to drive them toward fulfilling his vision of total digital convergence. Milo, the newest kid on the block, is given the daunting task of finding a way to make the new system interface with NURV satellites. He enjoys his new job, and deeply appreciates the special attention he’s paid by Winston, his hero.
Indeed, Milo is so happy, he initially fails to notice that, every time he reaches a dead end in his research and development, Winston manages to provide some new information or innovation from an unidentified source. But when one of Milo’s former partners in the startup is brutally murdered, our hero starts to wonder where Winston’s getting his info. Around the same time, Milo begins to question the loyalty of Alice (Claire Forlani), his live-in girlfriend, and wonders whether he should share his worst suspicions with Lisa (Rachael Leigh Cook), a beautiful co-worker.
Directed by Peter Howitt (“Sliding Doors”) from a script by Howard Franklin (“Someone to Watch Over Me”), “Antitrust” strikes an uneasy balance between topicality and tradition, trendy techno jargon and musty thriller clichés. This is the kind of pic in which characters bluntly underscore key information in seemingly innocuous conversations, in order to plant the seeds for later plot payoffs.
“Antitrust” also is the kind of pic in which the hero conveniently finds all manner of incriminating evidence — even a digital video of a murder! — by clicking the right keys on a computer keyboard. The bad guys might as well have their own Web site: http://www.bad-stuff-we-did.com.
On the plus side, Franklin’s premise deftly plays off aud paranoia about high technology in general and Bill Gates in particular, while Howitt generates a fair degree of suspense by any means necessary. Phillippe and Cook are little more than blandly efficient, and Forlani comes to life only when she’s signaling a possible crossover to the dark side. But never mind: Robbins is such a live wire that he’s able to jumpstart his co-stars whenever they’re interfacing onscreen.
Robbins offers a delightfully spot-on Gates caricature — he even nails the Microsoft’s mogul’s familiar grimaces and hand gestures, and occasionally even sounds like him, thanks to dialogue that echoes public statements by Gates himself.
Tech values are appropriately slick for a thriller set in the intersecting worlds of conspicuous consumption and cutting-edge technology.