There are any number of movies that would be hard to believe if they weren’t based on a true story. Much less common is something like “War Witch” director Kim Nguyen’s “The Hummingbird Project,” which is so mundanely quixotic that it’s hard to believe it’s not based on a true story. We’re talking about a financial thriller that stars Jesse Eisenberg and a bald Alexander Skarsgård as two Wall Street nerds who try to build a four-inch tunnel that stretches from Kansas to New Jersey. Their hope, we learn, is to run a fiber-optic cable across the eastern half of the United States that will allow their computers to react to the markets a few milliseconds faster than the competition, netting them millions of dollars in the process.
Welcome to the dumb and ultra-lucrative world of high-frequency trading, where automated systems execute millions of stock orders in the blink of an eye, and even the most ambitious heist plot is endowed with all the excitement of sub-contracting an elaborate construction job. There’s a good reason why no one’s ever made a movie about this before — in fact, there are probably a few. And given the degree to which “The Hummingbird Project” struggles to explain its strange mechanics, or leverage them to dramatize its even stranger characters, odds are that no one will ever make a movie about this again. Still, it’s hard to fault Nguyen for having the vision to give it a go, especially when you consider that financing and filming this oddity must have been a Herzogian quest as quixotic as the tunnel itself.
Eisenberg stars as Vincent, an anxious and ambitious finance guy who might best be described as “a Jesse Eisenberg type.” Desperate to “see what’s at the end of the line” before he dies (whatever that means), Vincent has the big idea that kicks things off. He’ll be the beating heart of this ridiculous pipedream. His savant-like cousin, Anton (Skarsgård, bald, hunched and borderline unrecognizable), will be the brains. Deep-pocketed investor Bryan Taylor (Frank Schorpion) will be the money, drilling expert Mark Vega (the charismatic and appropriately grounded Michael Mando) will run the dig, and all of them will be responsible for keeping the project secret from Vincent and Anton’s hyper-competitive boss, Eva Torres (a fun and cartoonish Salma Hayek, delivering each of her lines to the back of the theater).
From the moment the movie begins, there’s hardly a scene in which any of the characters seem to be enjoying themselves. There’s the occasional dollop of Machiavellian glee when our heroes experience a breakthrough, or Eva hatches an idea to interfere with their progress, but “The Hummingbird Project” never pretends that any of this is fun. Subtly at first — and then much louder as the story goes on — Kim takes every opportunity to underline the craven absurdity of late capitalism in the digital era. How untenable and stupid is a system in which people might be rewarded for digging up half of the United States just to shave a millisecond off of meaningful transactions they’ll never even know about? How much of our lives do we waste trying to save time doing things that don’t bring us any real happiness in the first place?
Drilling a hole straight into his film’s very thin layer of subtext, Nguyen hammers this point home by saddling Vincent with stomach cancer. The doctor says that a decent percentage of patients live for more than five years, but Vincent foregoes treatment altogether. Instead, he chooses to devote what little time he might have left to seeing this project to completion. The diagnosis reframes the rest of the movie as the inverse of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” or any of the other great stories about people who do one great thing before they die. Vincent resigns to his fate, and commits his remaining days to a mad idea that will do exactly nothing to make the world a better place.
Nguyen backgrounds that idea for most of the movie, burying it under a long and tedious (and stressful!) parade of scenes about subcontracting and the difficulties of digging through swamps, under mountains, and right across the heart of Amish country. If not for Mando’s light, exasperated turn as a man asked to do the impossible, this entire thread would be as miserable for us as it is for Vincent.
Meanwhile, back at a decrepit resort hotel somewhere on the Eastern seaboard, Anton sits in a dark room and tries to make the pipe flow just a few microseconds faster. Anchored by Skarsgård’s exaggerated, Igor-like work as a large man stuffed into a tiny coder’s body, this subplot unfolds like an anxiety-ridden screwball comedy that owes more to the Coen brothers than to the Lehman brothers. Skarsgård has a great time flaunting his privilege as a maddeningly handsome man in real life, but his schtick-driven performance never coheres into anything more than a stir-fry of eccentricities, and the dark humor he generates from them isn’t enough to pierce through the tragic veil that hangs over the whole movie.
Much like Vincent himself, “The Hummingbird Project” is so burdened by the story’s wild logistic — which include renting a massive helicopter that costs Vincent and Anton $100,000 a day, and perhaps almost as much for Nguyen — that it can’t access whatever rich veins of emotion might flow beneath its surface. Starting as a cold satire before thawing into a sentimental meditation on what really matters in this life (only the Amish have figured it out), the film struggles to make the transition between its two modes, and ultimately falls into the narrow hole that it digs for itself.
“The Hummingbird Project” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The Orchard will release it in 2019.