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Toronto Film Review: ‘The Hummingbird Project’

Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård are entrepreneurial cousins attempting a technological breakthrough in this entertaining digital-age drama.

Director:
Kim Nguyen
With:
Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Mando, Salma Hayek, Sarah Goldberg, Anna Maguire, Frank Schorpion, Johan Heldenbergh, Kwasi Songui, Ayisha Issa. (English dialogue)

1 hour 51 minutes

The Hummingbird Project” feels so much like it’s “inspired by true events” — a claim that tends to get hung on even the most outlandish genre exercise these days — viewers may have to keep reminding themselves that Kim Nguyen’s latest feature is in fact entirely fictive.

Recalling “Social Network” in that it once again casts Jesse Eisenberg as the engine behind a high-stakes, e-commerce-driven project — with a dweebified Alexander Skarsgård as his code-writing cousin — this is an entertaining vehicle for vivid performances by both actors. Yet, though the film shows signs of wanting to demonstrate the folly of an ever-faster-paced world in which people lose sight of life’s truer values, the message is a tad submerged in a familiar tale of entrepreneurial striving against impossible odds.

With a narrative of this nature, the lack of a true-story hook could hobble promotional efforts and awards favor, though reviews should be strong enough to help boost a picture whose central quest — efforts to build a fiber-optic tunnel — doesn’t comprise the sexiest movie pitch.

The tunnel is the brainchild of Vincent (Eisenberg) and Anton (Skarsgård), cousins of Russian-Jewish heritage who live in New York City and otherwise work for the ruthlessly demanding Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), a Wall Street CEO. Technology has reached a point where billions of dollars can ride on getting information just a tiny bit ahead of a competitor: If fiber-optic cable were laid from a core electronic exchange in Kansas to the Street’s New Jersey data bank, and if brilliant coder Anton could reduce communication time by a millisecond or so — the speed of a hummingbird’s single wing-beat — the cousins would be (at least temporary) kings of the financial sector, and set for life.

They’re not about to share their idea with the all-controlling Eva, so once they’ve secured a chief engineer (played by Michael Mando) and principal financier (Frank Schorpion) for the massive project, they submit their resignations. Infuriated by the defection, she dogs them with spies and legal threats. But equally daunting are the practical obstacles that beset the absurdly ambitious and risky undertaking — from gaining permission to dig narrow tunnels under national parks, private homes, swamps, mountains and the fields of resistant Amish farmers to Anton’s code stalling out at reducing the last crucial fraction of a second.

Skarsgard, almost unrecognizable as the stooped, balding Anton, goes to the brink of caricature with his amusingly stereotypical brainiac turn; the character is such a socially inept geek it’s a wonder he has an attractive wife (Sarah Goldberg) and kids. Pushing past the point of caricature is Hayek, who doesn’t shrink from putting a touch of glam camp on her villainess. Supporting turns are more realistically grounded, notably Mando’s rock-steady engineer.

But it’s Eisenberg who lends the film its most human notes. What starts out as another motormouthed hustler act — a less sociopathic spin on his “Social Network” interpretation — hits a major speed bump as Vincent gets some very serious health news midway through the proceedings. Choosing to keep things to himself, since the project will likely flounder without him, he suffers in a pained silence that provides the movie’s only real poignancy.

Though shot in Canada, “The Hummingbird Project” does a convincing enough job of evoking a sprawl of American locales, with much of the action taking place on tunnel dig sites that lend a welcome emphasis on diverse, often spectacular landscapes. This very different story for globetrotting Quebecois Nguyen feels more impersonal in some ways than such prior features as the Oscar-nominated “Rebelle” or last year’s “Eye on Juliet,” but it retains his sharp sense of empathy — and grasp of pacing and character — within the potentially too-wonky thematic framework. Tech and design contributions are straightforward and first-rate. Occasional flights of slo-mo visual poetry underline why it might be foolish for humanity to speed up life too much.

Toronto Film Review: 'The Hummingbird Project'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9, 2018. Running time: 111 MIN

Production: (Canada-Belgium) An Elevation Pictures presentation of an Item 7, Belga Prods. production in association with HanWay Films, Automatic Entertainment. (International sales: HanWay Films, London.) Producer: Pierre Even. Executive producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Fred Berger, Marie-Gabrielle Stewart, Heidi Levitt, Kim Nguyen. Co-producer: Alain-Gilles Viellevoye.

Crew: Director, writer: Kim Nguyen. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Nicolas Bolduc. Editors: Arthur Tarnowski, Nicolas Chaudeurge. Music: Yves Gourmeur.

With: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Mando, Salma Hayek, Sarah Goldberg, Anna Maguire, Frank Schorpion, Johan Heldenbergh, Kwasi Songui, Ayisha Issa. (English dialogue)

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