One millisecond is a nearly infinitesimal fraction of time. Heck, it just took you about a thousand milliseconds to read the words: “one millisecond.” So telling a story about a high-stakes race to convey information one measly millisecond faster than anybody else sounds like an exercise in making a heck of a lot of ado over, quite literally, almost nothing.
Thankfully, Kim Nguyen’s “The Hummingbird Project” is in on the joke. It’s a dryly humorous caper about a pair of cousins, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), who scheme to build a fiber-optic pipeline from Kansas City to New Jersey under the nose of their wealthy ex-employer, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek). Once built, their connection to the stock exchange will be one millisecond faster than anyone else’s, and that’s all the time they need to make a fortune.
Yes, that’s it; that’s their whole plan. They may be somewhat unethical, but they’re hardly Lex Luthor and Eric Northman. Vincent and Anton pitch their idea to legitimate investors and then try to charm and (when necessary) drink the allegorical milkshakes of the various landowners who stand in the way of them digging a modest-width, albeit incredibly long, hole in the ground.
Nguyen, director of the Oscar-nominated “War Witch,” plays most of “The Hummingbird Project” like an old-school heist movie, complete with fast-talking cons and schematics every which way. The cognitive disconnect between how serious Vincent and Anton take their mission and the mundanity of actually digging holes is inherently funny, and Nguyen milks that contrast for delicious irony and, eventually, some only partly-earned pathos.
“The Hummingbird Project” is the kind of film where Salma Hayek says, as she reaches out to a colleague, “You don’t have to hide behind this gimmicky neutrino-messaging bulls–t,” as if she doesn’t sound like she’s reading stereo instructions. The playful score by Yves Gourmeur (“Méprises”) and sharp, serious cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc (“Enemy”) are also whimsically at odds with one another. It’s a film that owns its contrasts, that’s for certain.
But although the story of “The Hummingbird Project” begins with a slick, Soderbergh-ian heist mentality, it gradually evolves into a rather sad tale about what a waste of time it is to try to steal a millisecond. As one of our protagonists wrestles with his mortality and his decision to build the pipeline even if it literally kills him, the other expands his consciousness to acknowledge that all their effort to make a few insanely rich investors just a little bit richer does absolutely nothing to help the people working at the companies in which they’re actually investing.
That’s a thoughtful approach to a film like this but, sadly, “The Hummingbird Project” doesn’t earn its enlightened conclusion. Most of the characters are eccentric, sometimes to the point of caricature; that, or they merely serve a function to the plot. Eisenberg seems to be playing a significantly less successful version of his Mark Zuckerberg character in “The Social Network,” with all the detachment and scheming but almost none of the skills to back up his bravado. Eisenberg is great at that, but it doesn’t do much to earn our empathy.
Meanwhile, Skarsgård plays a genius whose behavior would seem to indicate that he’s on the spectrum, although that’s never directly addressed. The actor appears to relish playing a brainy character: It looks like he dove headfirst into the electric razor that gave him a huge receding hairline. And it’s exceedingly amusing, for those who relish hackneyed moments of inspiration in movies, to see him amble from one seemingly random moment to another, in search of the big “eureka” that will solve all his problems and finally buy them that extra millisecond. Will he find a way to skip junctions after he tries skipping stones? No. Will he realize that fiber-optic cables are affected by water after he picks up the frog? No. You’ll see what it is, and if you’re into meta-narratives, you’ll probably be happy with its banality.
But all this whimsy does little to address the film’s frustratingly simple conclusions about life, the universe and everything. One of the characters, basically, comes right out and says, like he’s the biggest genius of them all, that the real treasure was the friends they made along the way. At that point “The Hummingbird Project” goes from ironic to trite in — it seems — less than a millisecond.
“The Hummingbird Project” is most of a great movie. Amiable performances and a deft pace combine with high-contrast storytelling, and the results are generally engaging. Sometimes funny, sometimes smart, always watchable. But perhaps the film’s dedication to turning a clever tale into something profound was a miscalculation. Perhaps there were simply better ways to spend the time.