April 8, 2019
‘The Hummingbird Project’ Reviewed Seven Ways
One of the many joys of the Film School Rejects experience is seeing see new talents join our family. Some stay with us for years, others move on to different pursuits or outlets, and all of us are made better through the exposure to new perspectives, ideas, and viewpoints.
This is equally true with regard to our interns. They join us through a shared interest in movies — not necessarily a specific genre, but movies in the grandest sense. Film, cinema, moving pictures. No two of us here are exactly alike in our tastes or interests, and the interns are no different. We expose them to the many different types of writing and coverage afforded to film, from essays to news to lists to research projects, and as their interests come clearer so do their respective skills.
Not everyone who wants to write about movies wants to actually review them, but as part of our broad approach, we had all of our interns tackle the critical review anyway. More specifically, as a shared lesson of sorts, we assigned each of our interns to watch and review the same movie — Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgård — and, some editor’s touch-ups aside, we’re presenting them below.
The goal of any review should be to provide a critical take to a reader offering insight into a film’s strengths, weaknesses, and purpose for being. What does it achieve? What is it trying to achieve, and why? Opinions are subjective, of course, meaning the same film can liked or disliked by different people, but the goal here — in addition to giving the interns a crack at a review — is to see what similarities and differences occur across seven reviews from first-time reviewers.
As it turns out, there are several of both.
One near-constant is the refrain that Eisenberg is simply playing his usual “Zuckerberg-like” persona again, while another sees repeated praise for Skarsgård going far more against type. The differences come in the takeaways regarding the film’s themes and its success at telling an engaging tale, and it’s there where differing perspectives allow for different results. Some focus on story, others zero in on character and performances, while still others wonder about the plot’s basis in fiction.
This project, while a lesson and experience for the interns, was an experiment for the rest of us. Some of these interns will never attempt a film review again, while others may gravitate towards them more frequently in the future, but for the readers, it’s a chance to see how young film lovers with limited experience in the film writing game attempt to put their fresh thoughts down for public consumption. Go see The Hummingbird Project if you get the chance, but for now, settle in and experience how seven other people saw the film first.
Jenna Benchetrit – “A Wall Street Drama with Little Power”
What’s at the end of the line? This is the question posed by The Hummingbird Project, directed by Kim Nguyen, which follows the story of two Wall Street-adjacent cousins in pursuit of a seemingly insurmountable goal. They want to build a perfectly straight, four-inch tunnel from Kansas to New York, which will hold a cable wire that gives them a 16-millisecond advance on stock exchange data. Vinny (Jesse Eisenberg) is the energy, a smooth-talking business wonk who hustles his way to success; and Anton (an unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgård) is the brains, a technical genius impeded by social ineptitude. The two are perfectly mismatched, but the magnitude and unpredictability of their project threaten to engulf them both.
There is a lot to enjoy about The Hummingbird Project, so it’s unfortunate that it can never quite live up to the sum of its parts. The two lead performances are excellent: Eisenberg is in familiar territory here, but his shtick is initially contained enough, bubbling right under the surface, that an eventual eruption feels well-executed. By contrast, Skarsgård plays off-type, convincingly shedding his Swedish-hot-guy reputation to play a shifty computer nerd with bad posture. They’re joined by Michael Mando (Better Call Saul), who plays a strong-willed contractor named Mark. The direction is mostly satisfactory, especially in scenes where the natural world and invasive infrastructure clash: trees fall in near slow motion, and a drill punctures the earth unforgivingly. These are the costs of destruction.
But if havoc is wreaking in the story world, it doesn’t translate cinematically. Even with the fast-paced nature of high-frequency trading, the film is sometimes monotonous where it should be anything but. In a scene that foreshadows the consequences of Anton’s coding work on the project, he faces his former boss Eva (Salma Hayek), who threatens him after discovering the scheme — and he seems genuinely terrified. Yet the climactic outcome of that threat plays more like physical comedy, and the fear present in the first scene (and in subsequent scenes where his paranoia sets in) is absent from the atmosphere of the payoff.
Something similar is lacking in Vinny’s own storyline, where bad news regarding his health would ideally trigger a sense of urgency in the viewer. Instead, it feels too much like a pointed parallel of the impossible project he has undertaken. In both cases, he’s running on a short timeline, a lot of people are depending on him, and he might not make it but must power through anyway. The gloomy plot point still offers one of the film’s most effective comedic moments: having Vinny speak feverishly into his phone while strapped down in an ambulance, his heart rate monitor steadily accelerating until it beeps wildly in the background of his frantic conversation. The film’s comedy is sometimes well-placed, but at other points, it distorts the tone.
The heart of the film, strangely, is not with its main characters but with a small community of Amish people whose land is one of the crucial drilling points for the project. In their refusal to acquiesce to Vinny, and his subsequent refusal to honor their wishes, a story of injustice emerges. It’s akin to the power struggle between ruthless corporations and environmentalists, or between the land-stealers and those whose land was stolen. There was a ton of raw emotion to be drawn from these brief altercations, but the film’s attention is divided by a slew of other conflicts.
By its conclusion, The Hummingbird Project dispels the myth of an underdog/top-dog dichotomy. Instead, it suggests that power is a multi-level hierarchy. During Vinny and Anton’s first meeting with Mark, Vinny likens their project to a struggle between David and Goliath. “I like that,” Mark says. “We’re David.” It’s not a question; more of a request for assurance. Vinny looks mildly surprised when he answers that yes, they are David. The truth is that Vinny might see himself as David, and Eva as Goliath, but the Amish subject to his cruelty would strongly disagree.
This is where the film’s truth lies: in an assessment of the layered way that power is structured and wielded. But if there’s an anti-Wall Street message here, it’s never really earned: there’s some analogizing about lemon farmers in Zimbabwe, and an expressed desire to “burn Wall Street to the ground”, but The Hummingbird Project can’t seem to hold onto those moments of fervency long enough to make its point. And so, at the end of the line, any tension falls decidedly flat.
Aliya Jones – “A Profound Message Curbed By a Lack of Balance”
The Hummingbird Project is a gamble. It’s betting that we enjoy watching Jesse Eisenberg being a hustler and talk a mile an hour, even when he’s not inventing Facebook. That we don’t want to watch Alexander Skarsgård be handsome. That we’re okay with Salma Hayek playing the cartoon shell of an antagonist. It’s betting that we care even a little bit about these characters attempting to make millions of dollars in 16 milliseconds. It’s betting that we care about a theme of slowing down from work (which we’ve seen plenty of times before). And it’s betting that we care about it all even though it’s not a true story. Not all of these bets pay off.
The film follows two cousins, Vincent (an Eisenberg’s Eisenberg) and Anton (a stooped, bald Skarsgård), and their contractor (Michael Mando) as they travel across the country attempting to build a straight, fiber-optic line from Kansas to New Jersey to save milliseconds (yes, milliseconds!) on high-frequency trading before their former boss (Hayek) can figure out another way to do the same job. It’s a premise that’s so oddly specific, so reminiscent of wild business endeavors you might watch a documentary about, that it’s hard to believe it all came from the mind of writer/director Kim Nguyen. Nguyen has some profound ideas about all this— about obsession with speed and money— that he attempts to nail down by emphasizing the absurdity of this situation he’s created where characters’ lives are devoted to a project where success is measured in milliseconds.
In emphasizing the situation, the film forgets that we want characters who seem like real characters, not ones who exist merely as their first impression and grow only when the most dramatic things happen to them. They’re characters in name, sure, but they’re certainly not people. Eisenberg is fun to watch for his line delivery but plays a somehow less charismatic version of his The Social Network character, a character this film has to use a diagnosis to humanize. Skarsgård plays off-type and does it well, but his character is more an archetype than he is a character: an anti-social genius being exploited through a family connection. Hayek exists to look fabulous, exit, and return periodically as competition to the cousins (translation: she exists to up the stakes).
They’re all apparently so deep into their work that the only mention of life outside of high-frequency trading is Anton’s family, reduced to a worried call from his wife every so often. The theme of emotional distance from characters doesn’t stop there. Hayek implies that she has a personal connection to the people she hires, but we only get to see her be a frustrated boss to them. Mando is most interesting when calling out racism from an elderly homeowner, a random moment that blows over so fast you have to wonder why it’s even in there. The film uses these characters as personified plot elements, pieces of the equation of absurdity used to demonstrate its message. In doing this, it forgets that we in the audience don’t just want a big picture message— we want to engage with the film emotionally.
It’s almost hard to blame it, though; character beats are small and the big picture of the work they are doing in creating this line is exciting, and where the gamble of the film pays off most. Think $100,000 a day helicopters, drills going through the Appalachian mountains, visits from the FBI— the works. You might not care about fiber-optics, but you’ll almost certainly find yourself taken by the grandiosity of it all. It’s seductive in the same way that large-scale action can pull almost anyone in. Whether or not the line is finished and money is earned seems almost incidental. We just want to know if this obstacle is going to be overcome, whether these characters can find a way to achieve the impossible. Instead of getting lost in any emotional depth of its characters, the film gets lost in worrying about obstacles like the mountains and, for those scenes, we’re lost with it.
As soon as those scenes are over, though, the film’s biggest problem is evident: from its lack of characterization to its abundance of situation, the film never finds the right balance of extremes to get at the meaning it wants to. It’s held back by its refusal to focus on the implications of its absurd situational paradoxes. Saving milliseconds to earn millions. Shoveling out millions to save milliseconds. A few lines of code with the threat of prison hanging over it. These are all rather profound ideas about what we’ll do for money, but they needed more emphasis and more time to be driven home.
But, to its credit, the film does offer some moments that come close to achieving the profundity it’s aiming for. Though its characters don’t bring emotion, lush cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc captures emotion in the visuals of the world outside the bubble of this story. It’s the moments of slow motion and lingering shots that stick in the mind because, unlike other elements of the film, they have depth. They make us see the world the characters are trying so hard to pass through in 16 milliseconds. They even almost become universal moments telling us that we, too, need to slow down and truly see the world around us. Almost.