REVIEW: The Hummingbird Project [2019]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 110 minutes
    Release Date: March 15th, 2018 (USA)
    Studio: The Orchard
    Director(s): Kim Nguyen
    Writer(s): Kim Nguyen

What’s at the end of the line?

Vincent Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg) and his cousin Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) work for a stock trader in New York City (Salma Hayek‘s Eva Torres) and seem to be doing well. Writer/director Kim Nguyen doesn’t give any specifics as to their salaries and whatnot, but we visit one of their homes during a memorial for Vincent’s father and everyone seems comfortable enough to not need to be greedy. And yet The Hummingbird Project starts by placing greed front and center. It introduces Vincent’s shrewd business acumen to earn a backer with deep pockets for a massive undertaking that might at this point be in service of Eva’s company. So when the truth reveals they’ve gone rogue to actually leapfrog her technology and earn themselves millions, we have to wonder “Why?”

You often don’t think about why you root for a film’s protagonist. A villain is created or a mission is assigned and we simply give ourselves over to them. It therefore becomes very glaring when this intrinsic emotional attachment doesn’t exist. I can intellectually read Eva as the bad guy because she’s willing to threaten these men with jail time for what she believes they’re accomplishing by leaving her employ, but the narrative never backs it up. She holds Anton as a genius and has cultivated it for years—even giving Vincent a job for the sake of his happiness. That doesn’t earn his loyalty or stop him from leaving if desired, but doing so to her detriment specifically isn’t validated by what we see of their relationship.

In some cases this is okay because the so-called “heroes” of the tale are incorruptible human beings doing something that benefits the world. Unfortunately we can’t say that about this film either since Vincent is far from a saint. He’s put the ideas into Anton’s head and cajoled him to leave his job to pursue them rather than give them to their former boss. He does it out of some undefined hubristic need for success. So he fast-talks a bunch of people, relies on worthy associates (Michael Mando is great as his lead contractor Mark Vega), and smugly believes victory at all costs is somehow his to accomplish no matter the consequences or collateral damage. You do have to ask whether he’s David or Goliath in his metaphor.

We’re left with little more than a race against time and resources with characters we couldn’t care less about and a project steeped in the amoral ability to make more money off the backs of unknowing people’s work than the next guy. If not for the performances and intrigue surrounding the fact that Vincent’s potential empire has as much chance of failing as succeeding, Nguyen’s tale would provide no real reason to stick around. He tries to add a plot thread concerning cancer that hopes our sympathy can offset Vincent’s ruthless ambition, but it only made me think less of him since he refuses to let the perspective of mortality alter his outlook. I honestly hoped Anton would realize his cousin was compromising his internal ethics and quit.

I say this because he’s the single character with the room to grow and the likeability to support on that quest. Skarsgård is playing against type with a balding head and Asperger’s-esque personality that makes him introverted yet self-confident at the same time. He has a job to do and will do whatever it takes to accomplish it whether or not Eva or Vincent is in control. This also means he’s the one with his freedom on the line if something goes awry. It’s Anton’s code that will allow the fiber-optic line Mark is installing between Kansas and New York to work more efficiently than any other mode of electronic communication between those states. His intellectual property is what both Eva and Vincent claim to own.

So we stay on our toes around Anton because he has the capacity to throw a wrench into everything. The other two do too since Eva will do everything she can to find an alternative method that’s even faster than their line and Vincent discovers digging through granite and Amish land isn’t a cake walk, but they never go off-script. They’re driven by greed and hubris and thus run headfirst into obstacles with the entitlement to breakthrough any problem they confront. That predictability renders them boring and thus Anton becomes our single hope for excitement—despite being the least exciting person of them all. It’s a weird dynamic because success for him comes down to watching a number decrease. The other supposed drama is merely noise.

Nguyen does appear aware of Vincent’s shortcomings, though, leaning into them to force the character to be his own worst enemy and thus the origin of what goes wrong. So where the film ultimately goes proves a perfect conclusion for that intentional pathway, but the question of whether following it was worth our time must factor in too. This is where I wonder if it was all for naught because nothing really changes. Vincent will inevitably be humbled by his fate, but it comes too late for it to mean anything. You have to want to improve yourself for it to matter. Playing things out only to decide on being nice for the first time in your life after they fall apart is disingenuous at best.

When the periphery characters are drawn as good people simply to let Vincent talk down to them, it’s a disservice to their performances. And since Eva is one hundred percent justified in doing what she does, you can’t pretend she’s worse than him. Suddenly The Hummingbird Project becomes this elaborate set of moving parts that would work better narratively if it fails because the man at the center is the real villain. So it becomes bittersweet if he does somehow succeed and anticlimactic if he doesn’t. All we’re left to hold onto is Anton’s possible awakening to make things right and finally realize his unique and useful ideas are being wielded for material gain rather than the improvement of mankind. Sadly that epiphany is wrongly ignored.

[1] L to R – Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard
[2] L to R – Salma Hayek and Alexander Skarsgard
[3] L to R – Michael Mando and Jesse Eisenberg

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