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‘The Hummingbird Project’ Has Charm But Lacks Clarity

Dir. Kim Nguyen—3 STARS

‘The Hummingbird Project’ still
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Vincent (left) and Alexander Skarsgård stars as Anton (right) in “The Hummingbird Project,” directed by Kim Nguyen.

15 milliseconds — that’s the time it takes for a hummingbird to do a single flap of its wings. It’s also the time that characters in “The Hummingbird Project” hope to transmit stock trade information across the country through a fiber optic cable. The link between the hummingbird and the stock exchange is much like the feel of the film: whimsical and amusing, yet shrouded in haziness without a clear direction.

The lack of clarity starts with the messy plot. Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton Zaleski (Alexander Skarsgård), a fast talker-and-brains duo of high-frequency traders on Wall Street, are cousins who plan to make big bank on the stock exchange by building a fiber-optic cable that stretches underground from Kansas to New Jersey. What are they up against? Here’s where the mess begins: The Zaleskis face Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) — their menacing former boss who wields threats and resources above their heads — reluctant Amish landlords, the Appalachian mountains to dig through, the difficulty of finding an algorithm that’s fast enough to make all of the cables actually worth putting through, and a hard-hitting medical diagnosis for Vinny. Despite the film’s clumsy attempt at complexity, “The Hummingbird Project” ultimately shines because of the jumble of story threads that threaten to undermine it — that’s where the film gets its somewhat eccentric edge.

Director Kim Nguyen crafts interesting subplots promisingly, but disappointingly, he falls short of developing them. In a two hour runtime, however, there wasn’t room for much development. Nguyen showcases plenty of the gory details of Vinny’s illness, yet the illness doesn’t seem to ever pose a real threat until everything else also falls apart. Eisenberg brings the same spite and eagerness to Vincent as he did for Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” but his character isn’t quite as fleshed out. Instead, the film is full of could-have-beens: In one scene, Vinny floats down a frozen river in a raft somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, opening up about the struggles of growing up as the child of Russian immigrants — only to never again give the audience a glimpse into his childhood and his personal life.

Hayek pulls off a badass Cruella de Vil-like performance as Eva, strutting her heels and commanding immense power. Skarsgård is barely recognizable with his receding hairline as quirky, geeky, but still endearing Anton. The film’s funniest scenes are ones that spotlight Anton’s nerdiness. It’s only fitting that he spends most of the film in front of multiple monitors in his hotel room, trying to find a way to cut the speed of transaction down by one millisecond for the network he and Vinny are building.

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Nguyen tries to meaningfully explore the well-worn question: What’s the point of winning on Wall Street? It’s not that Nguyen should’ve answered this question directly, but the lack of answers provided in the film is unsettling. Nguyen never clarifies Vinny and Anton’s intentions, aside from maybe a shallow interest in money. But that’s not really it. Anton supposedly wants to live in a reclusive country home working on his “codes,” and at times it seems like he’s motivated purely by a desire to not disappoint Vinny. Even with his social awkwardness and genius, he seems more emotionally complex than he lets on. Vinny, perhaps a little more blatantly, is driven by a wish to beat the ticking clock of life given his medical diagnosis, but ironically sacrifices his health by devoting himself to this insane project. Nguyen’s commentary on Wall Street and its lifestyle is not quite subtle here, but also does not amount to a meaningful commentary either.

“The Hummingbird Project” is a thought-provoking film, one that tackles a different Wall Street story. Instead of the tale of debauchery of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the informative narrative of “The Big Short,” or the overly dramatic plots that define so many other films about banking, “The Hummingbird Project” is refreshing because it is about a venture that is as much of a physical endeavor as it is an intellectual one. But Nguyen also tries to prove that a highly-technical and complicated Wall Street story can be just as much about a construction project, a terminal illness, a geeky-cult industry, and a family alliance, until it is no longer clear what the film is really about. The film contains figments of these curious side stories. Its flaw is the sheer unmanageable number of these figments, and the looseness in which Nguyen ties them together.

—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at lucy.wang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @lucyyloo22.

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