As Benjamin Franklin famously said in Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One, “time is money,” and when you’re dealing with billions of dollars, every millisecond counts. Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project finds its monumental stakes riding on such a microscopic amount of time. At its best, it understands the immense irony of a figure so profoundly small that its gravity will likely be nearly entirely lost on its viewers. Unfortunately, Nguyen’s kooky financial caper loses steam when it makes the glaring mistake of actually taking itself seriously.
In a tale so fanatically bound to a mundane narrative that it seems as though it is surely based on a true story (but, as it turns out, isn’t), Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård) believe they’ve found a way to shave a fraction off the time it takes information from the stock exchange to reach investors, making them a small fortune in the process. Their plan? Run a four-inch fiber-optic cable from Kansas to New Jersey, all while keeping a greedy competitor, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), from stealing their thunder.
If that sounds like a mountains-out-of-molehills type of plot, that’s because it is. Our heros’ seemingly insignificant goals are hard to root for and, what’s more, even harder to make feel cinematic. There is some joy to be had at the sight of these slimy charlatans ripping off landowners and investors, but that’s only when Nguyen has the good sense to acknowledge that he’s making a comedy. When The Hummingbird Project abandons the pursuit of poking fun at its ridiculous premise because it genuinely believes itself to be delivering a profound sermon on the nature of human greed, it quickly runs out of gas.
To the detriment of any sort of coherency, The Hummingbird Project is constantly at odds with itself, a whirling battle of conflicting tones. If you had the film muted, you might justifiably take from Nicolas Bolduc’s rigid cinematography that you were watching a serious drama. Conversely, if you could only hear the film, Yves Gourmeur’s fanciful score would tip you off that something much more light and whimsical was afoot. And if you saw Alexander Skarsgård dancing around and shaking his ill-fitted bald cap, you’d be right to assume you’d just switched on a Saturday Night Live sketch. Nguyen continuously betrays both the comedy and the drama by allowing each to occupy the same space without ever quite meeting.
While many of the key players are giving their all (kudos to the delightful villainous Hayek) they are given little to work with, as the characters function little outside their service to the plot. And they are rarely able to all agree on exactly what sort of movie it is that they’re making. The Hummingbird Project is mess. With it, Nguyen brings a handful of interesting ideas to the table, but he can’t quite figure out how to make them coexist.