Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project rarely questions its characters’ morality or motivations. When it does, even the movie will admit that its protagonists are pretty self-centered and myopic, but then it breezes right past that to dive right back into their vainglorious quest. Although The Hummingbird Project starts off as a bit of a caper, the movie quickly becomes a slog due to weak pacing and characters who never earn our admiration. We don’t always need to like our protagonists, but we at least have to sympathize with their motives, and unfortunately, the characters here rarely get beyond wanting to game the stock market so they can make hundreds of millions of dollars. Maybe in another era (*cough*the 80s*cough*) this would have been heroic, but here it just seems selfish and sad.
Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton Zaleski (Alexander Skarsgård) are cousins with an ambitious plan: to build a straight fiber-optic cable from Kansas to the New York Stock Exchange. This direct line will give them a 16-millisecond edge over their competitors in the world of High-Frequency Trading and especially over their old boss, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek), who wants to beat the duo at their own game. Vincent hustles on the ground trying to get the cable built with the help of construction expert Mark Vega (Michael Mando) while Anton works on the coding to make sure their data can hit the 16-millisecond mark. However, health problems, Torres’ machinations, the terrain, and other problems threaten to thwart the cousins’ project.
I’m not a believer that characters need to be likable; they just need to be compelling. We have to care about their motivations, and if we care about those motivations, then we’ll care about what they’re doing even if we don’t personally agree with their actions. The Hummingbird Project lacks that compelling motivation because right now the world is pretty sick of guys who want to find an angle the rest of us can’t and exploit it for more money they would ever need in a lifetime. This isn’t like a heist where the actions are outside of normalcy and we can revel in the outlandishness of the crime. These are people who want to shortchange as many others as they can so they can get rich through means that are exclusive to them and their clientele.
It doesn’t really help matters when the antagonist wants the same thing as the protagonist and not for different ends. There are plenty of stories where the hero and the villain race for the same object but the villain wants it for personal gain while the hero has altruistic motives, but here, both the protagonist and antagonist are both in it for personal gain. Why should I root against Eva Torres when she wants the same thing as the Zaleskis? Because she’s kind of mean? It’s not like Vincent is really a peach (Eisenberg gonna Eisenberg), and the only reason we’re supposed to like her less is because we know less about her. You could argue that Vincent and Anton are in it for each other and their families, but maybe Torres is in it for her family too. But you would never know because the movie only needs her to be Mean Lady.
The film also suffers from the relationship between Anton and Vincent lacking specificity. Their bond is supposed to be the heart of the movie, but you’ve seen this relationship loads of times. Anton is the brilliant mind who is socially awkward and aloof. Vincent is the fast-talking schemer. Nguyen doesn’t do much to build past these archetypes so there’s nothing particularly sympathetic in their plight. Eventually the movie just gets caught up in a loop of a construction montage, Vincent struggling to keep the machinery rolling, Anton trying to figure out the coding, and occasionally Eva dropping in to remind you there’s an antagonist.
There are glimmers of things to like in The Hummingbird Project like Mando making the most out of a minor role or how the movie at least acknowledges that stock traders make ridiculous profits while laborers generally get far less than they deserve. But these moments are fleeting, and then we’re back to two-dimensional characters pursuing selfish goals that feel completely out of tune with where we are right now with regards to income inequality and Wall Street excess. But even if The Hummingbird Project were in the right time, it would still struggle to be the right movie.