It has all the hallmarks of being based on a true story. There are times and dates to give perspective, location titles to let you know where you are, plus there’s attention to detail with an added sense of urgency that makes things anxious and even exciting. Yet once you know that The Hummingbird Project is really a work of fiction and none of what you’re seeing ever happened, somehow a thriller about high-frequency trading and ultra-low latency direct market access doesn’t come across as particularly compelling, no matter how well crafted writer/director Kim Nguyen’s film really is.
Two cousins from New York, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgard) work for Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) in the Wall Street world of High-Frequency Trading, that special type of high-stakes financial marketing that deals with data and electronic trading tools – have I lost you yet?
Vincent is the aggressive hustler, the ideas guy who dreams big. Cousin Anton is the brains, the soft-spoken, humorless one who knows his equations. He’s Sheldon Cooper without the comic snark or a studio audience, and less annoying. It’s Anton who works out the logistics of how to make both he and Vincent rich. The plan – to build a straight fiber-optic cable that runs between Kansas and New Jersey. It’s to be buried way underground and to go through mountains, fields, and lakes. By doing this, information will reach its target faster than the competition. It would mean Vincent and Anton would get market trading information as much as a millisecond second before anyone else. And for the record, in case you’re wondering just how fast a millisecond really is, it’s the single flap of a hummingbird wing in flight.
The conflicts are many. First, fast-talking Vincent needs to get the financing to complete the project, hire diggers to bury the fiber, get permission from landowners to dig – the Amish prove particularly difficult – and keep his cousin happy and comfortable while the numbers genius works on the equations and creates the codes to make that extra millisecond a reality. “I’m doing everything I can to find that millisecond,” declares Anton in a rare moment of anger with his cousin. “Leave me alone!”
But if digging the earth isn’t a big enough challenge, they also have their ex-boss, Eva on their tails, and Eva is ruthless. Having left her company to go solo and follow their dreams, the manipulative and powerful woman seeks revenge. In a menacing moment like a slippery villain in a Bond movie, Eva appears out of nowhere at a spa while Anton is taking a relaxing bath. “I cared for you and you betrayed me,” she tells him while letting spa water drip from her fingers on to his bald scalp. “Now you have to pay, and I’m going to make it painful.”
Eisenberg is the motormouth who talks people into doing what they don’t always want to do. It’s an angle not too removed from his role in The Social Network, though here, cousin Vincent is less objectionable and considerably more likable than Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg. When he receives bad news regarding his health and the urgent need to operate – information he withholds from Anton – he asks the doctor, “Could this be put on hold for a couple of months? I’m in the middle of something really important.”
With a shaved head, a stoop, and a manner that suggests an introvert with every move, Swedish actor Skarsgard with an always convincing American accent is as far removed from his sexy vampire Eric in HBO’s True Blood as he could be. To underline his matter-of-fact, sobersided nature, when financier Bryan Taylor (Frank Schorpion) shakes his hand and tells him, “You go to Kansas now, Dorothy,” the humorless brainiac, not getting the Oz reference, reminds the money guy that his name is actually Anton.
The conclusion to the film goes in an unexpected direction. And while there’s intrigue and a considerable amount of conflict that engages – the scenes between Eisenberg and Johan Heldenbergh as an Amish Elder who won’t cooperate are particularly good, as is a moment between Skarsgard and a waitress who asks him about his work but from a very human perspective that’s not part of his calculus – The Hummingbird Project is no easy sell.
Becoming aware that’s it’s not based on real events, even though it looks as though it might, the film loses its presence. Plus, when the subject is about a fiber-optic line that makes information move a millisecond faster than the competition, even if Nguyen’s script reflects real advances in trading technology, you can’t help but question exactly who outside of high-tech geeks, the ones who might talk about this stuff all the time. is going to want to see it.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 111 Minutes