There are two great things about Kim Nguyen’s otherwise passable The Hummingbird Project, the first being the title, which is a simile. That is, it likens amazing wing speed to the potential flow of data from somewhere in Kansas to a brokerage house in New York. Apparently, fortunes can be made by getting info one millisecond ahead of the competition, which is good to know if you want to understand why so many people become multimillionaires for doing nothing except siphoning money from “the system” (define the system how you will). The second thing is Alexander Skarsgård. He’s often the best part of anything he’s in, but here he’s uncanny. He’s Anton Zaleski, the wonky (perhaps on the spectrum) techie and cousin of the film’s protagonist, Vincent Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg), who has hatched a plan to lay a high-speed cable under the Appalachians and other hard-to-get-to spots between the Midwest and East Coast. Skarsgård plays the part as if his considerable height were an impediment; he’s always bent over, leaning forward with his bald brainpan. Anton is happiest when he’s alone in a room with his specs and equations, although “happy” is a relative term given his thick layer of gloom.
The movie is tense and absorbing, though it goes too far in the opposite direction of something like The Wolf of Wall Street. I disliked Martin Scorsese’s drama principally for its repetitions (the same scene over and over, garishly accelerating instead of going deeper), but also because the director seemed indifferent to real-world consequences of his antihero’s perfidy. The Hummingbird Project, on the other hand, is weighed down by its moralism. The film’s other operative simile is that corrosive capitalism is like stomach cancer — Vincent’s diagnosis when what seems like an ulcer borne of high pressure turns out to be something graver. Against the doctor’s advice, Vincent doesn’t submit to surgery and chemo. For him, the cable represents the fulfillment of his (and his ambitious father’s) dreams and is therefore more important than his physical existence. While he drives forward, Anton pores over data in a Kansas hotel and confides what he’s doing to a waitress — the movie’s conscience. She asks what the people (in this case farmers) whose products are being sold get out of the new technology, and Anton replies, blankly, that they’re irrelevant. But he does concede that she’s raising “a lot of epistemological questions” — a chink in his armor. Thereafter he cites those poor farmers a lot. The epistemology hangs him up.
Most of The Hummingbird Project is Eisenberg grimacing over his stomach and talking very fast — he’s a verbal hummingbird, a high-speed blurter. He’s good, though for most of the movie one-note, like his character. We’re meant to register the fundamental absurdity of what he’s doing while on the brink of death: raising outrageous amounts of money, rounding up contractors, bargaining with homeowners for rights to their subterranean space — among them an Amish farmer who sternly editorializes against Vincent’s materialism and passes on a 300-thousand-plus-dollar fee. Vincent is not just up against the clock but his former employer, played by a scenery-chewing Salma Hayek under a white lioness mane. She talks just as fast (though not as deftly), grilling her techie subordinates on other ways of streaming data and occasionally popping over to Kansas to sneer at the Zaleskis. There’s some but not a lot of suspense. Game of High-Speed Cables just doesn’t have much oomph.
Some of the supporting actors register, especially Michael Mando as the unpretentious but quick-witted chief engineer. But the only surprise is Skarsgård. He has played wife-beaters, vampires, rapists, and mute would-be detectives, but who’d have thought he’d make a credible nerd? It’s exciting to watch him moan and talk to himself and pace back and forth in a motel room before a bank of computer screens. He puts the hum in The Hummingbird Project.