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Jesse Eisenberg stars in high-finance thriller The Hummingbird Project

When nerdy cousins hatch a get-rich-quick scheme, it seems amazingly plausible.

A low-voltage, high-finance thriller, The Hummingbird Project is about an American Dream. Its central characters are cousins, restless grifter Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and computer nerd Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), who have an outlandish idea for untold riches.

Their plan: to burrow a fibre-optic cable a thousand-plus miles from Kansas to New Jersey – in a straight line, right through the Appalachians. Their advantage will be in how they can trade stocks milliseconds ahead of their competitors – one flap of a hummingbird’s wings. Rising to foil them is their old boss, a rapacious Wall Street trader played by Salma Hayek – she’s Gordon Gekko in a pantsuit.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

And here’s the thing: it is not based on a true story. The premise is fictional, yet the Canadian production still has an authentic ring to it. It’s composed mostly of two types of scenes: the combative boardroom meeting and the rural dig site. It’s a testament to Kim Nguyen’s directing, and the strength of the performances, that these otherwise tedious settings can be surprisingly engaging.

Both leads play against type. Eisenberg has always been a machine-gunner of dialogue, radiating neurotic energy. But here there is proof that he can play pensive and troubled. Skarsgård has long been a hulking Adonis, but as Anton, he’s transformed: posture slumped, shy and drawn inward, bespectacled and bald.

If there’s anything that downs the drama, it’s a tendency to moralise. Nguyen insists on giving us two ethical messengers: first, a stomach ulcer that gnaws away at Vincent, and second, an Amish farmer who doesn’t want his land defiled by corrupting technology.

We would have grasped that rapacity and greed were under interrogation in the story without the need for these obvious metaphors. Vincent and Anton want money for nothing and, as with most American Dreams founded on an illusion, that dream will inevitably crumble around their ears.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Madman Films

This article was first published in the June 1, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.