Two cousins from New York want to construct a thousand-mile-long fiber-optic cable that runs in a straight line from Kansas to New Jersey in Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project. After his foreign-language Oscar nomination for War Witch, the French-Canadian director has made only Anglophone projects, writing and directing Two Lovers and a Bear, with Dane DeHaan, and Eye on Juliet, with Joe Cole, both titles feeling modest and somewhat messy in terms of their storytelling. Though not all of the messiness is gone, Nguyen has now clearly stepped up his game in terms of his ambition here, casting Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard as the cousins — the Tarzan actor almost unrecognizable with his bald crown and pronounced gut — and telling a story that’s both specific and also more generally about the crazy times we live in. Though this intriguing genre-hybrid might be just a little too odd for more mainstream success, this is a promising step in the right direction for Nguyen.
Anton Zaleski (Skarsgard) and his younger cousin, Vincent Zaleski (Eisenberg), come from a Russian family in New York. They make a good team, as Anton is the nerdy, socially awkward genius and Vincent is a go-getter who can sell pretty much anything to anyone and who frequently sees opportunities before others do. That’s why Vincent decides they should both quit their job working for Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), the imperious boss of a high-frequency trading company, where each millisecond ahead of the competition could make the company millions.
Vincent’s plan is to find investors for a fiber-optic cable that would run in a straight line — through thousands of properties as well as natural parks, lakes and mountain ranges — from Kansas to New Jersey, which would already mean a slight data-speed increase. This means drilling the entire line horizontally after having bought or leased the small portion of land, just a foot or so wide at some depth underneath the surface, for a thousand miles, a logistical nightmare that requires massive amounts of coordination as well major means and money, though what’s all that effort and cost for a year or so if one can subsequently make millions a second? While Vincent talks to land owners, contractors and drillers, Anton is holed up in a dark hotel room in his robe, wracking his brain about how to take off another full millisecond from the current speed through other means.
If this all sounds very technical, the screenplay by Nguyen ensures that audiences will get the gist of what’s at stake at every turn without ever drowning viewers in technical specifics. The only thing that’s a bit unclear in the early going is where the money is coming from, though the investors do come into fuller view in the second half.
The most straightforwardly enjoyable part of The Hummingbird Project is the high-connectivity arms race of sorts between Anton and Vincent’s small new company and the major conglomerate headed by their former boss. Both work on different solutions to try and get those milliseconds of data transfer further down and composer Yves Gourmeur’s contemporary, driving score helps suggest something of their constant state of competition. Since Eva is depicted as a kind of Wall Street Miranda Priestly, always fully focused but also only business, it’s not hard to root for the Zaleskis, who are the underdogs in this situation. That said, in the area of style, Eva, with her gold-rimmed glasses, luscious silver-tipped hair and executive-chic wardrobe, definitely has the boys beat.
But The Hummingbird Project, which is set in 2011 and 2012, doesn’t just want to entertain, it also wants to be a character drama. In that arena, too, Nguyen mostly succeeds. Fast-talking is practically Eisenberg’s trademark, but his Vincent is not only whip-smart but also someone with a deep loyalty to his cousin — who wouldn’t be able to lock himself into a room and do what he does if Vincent wouldn’t sell it to someone — and with some serious health issues. The struggle with his physical well-being further humanizes him, as he’s forced to make choices that he doesn’t want to make. There’s a quiet moment where he gets a massage after a stressful day and the tears suddenly well up in his eyes; he’s just had a minute to really think about where he is in life, what he wants to get out of it and what it’s going to cost him. It’s as thrillingly touching a moment as the Queens-born actor has ever played.
While Skarsgard’s generically middle-aged look takes some getting used to, the actor very convincingly limns a quiet genius of a man who, constantly stooped over, seems to live inside a body that feels too big for him. All Anton wants is to be lost in his world of numbers, where he can find solutions to complex problems, but the real world keeps interrupting, which drives him mad (his maladroitness and quirks, like his fear of flying, are also a solid source of humor). Not much of a people’s person, despite having his own family, Anton dreams of an isolated house on a hill with only some hummingbirds nearby.
The almost two-hour feature finally doesn’t feel entire smooth because Nguyen the screenwriter and editors Arthur Tarnowski and Nicolas Chaudeurge don’t quite manage to find the right balance between the fast-moving, more straightforward genre elements and the more contemplative character beats and backstories, so the rhythm can be a little off. On top of that, Hummingbird also wants to suggest something about the crazy pace of today's world and the fact mountains literally need to be moved if money can be made, even if society as a whole doesn’t necessarily benefit from these far-reaching actions. This theme comes to the fore most obviously in a subplot involving an Amish farmer (Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh, from The Broken Circle Breakdown) who doesn’t want to sell or lease his property. While it renders a lot of the thematic undercurrents more visible, the final stretch of this particular storyline feels a little too blatantly engineered to drive home a point.
That said, this is ambitious and stimulating fare from Nguyen, who coaxes terrific performances from his cast — which also includes Michael Mando (Better Call Saul) as Vincent’s right hand on the ground — and who seems fully in control of the all the moving parts of what feels like a big production with a lot of large equipment for all those drilling scenes in remote locations. Indeed, the logistics must have been almost as complex as those needed to lay a cable that can transfer data from Kansas to New York in the time it takes a hummingbird to flap its wings.
Production companies: Item 7, Belga Production
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgard, Salma Hayek, Michael Mando, Johan Heldenbergh, Ayisha Issa, Mark Slacke, Sarah Goldberg, Frank Schorpion, Kwasi Songui
Writer-director: Kim Nguyen
Producer: Pierre Even
Executive producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Fred Berger, Marie-Gabrielle Stewart, Heidi Levitt, Kim Nguyen
Director of photography: Nicolas Bolduc
Production designer: Emmanuel Frechette
Costume designer: Valerie Levesque
Editors: Arthur Tarnowski, Nicolas Chaudeurge
Music: Yves Gourmeur
Casting: Heidi Levitt, Andrea Kenyon, Randi Wells
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Hanway Films / CAA