They’re a study in contrasts. Vincent Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg) is an ultrahyper, motormouthed Wall Street stock trader whose self-confidence knows no bounds. His cousin, Anton Zaleski (Alexander Skarsgård), is an uber-nerd with few social skills, a programmer who loves to lose himself in the intricacies of solving arcane coding problems. He’s prone to noisy panic attacks (airborne turbulence triggers major freak-outs on cross-country flights).
Best buddies, they’re men with a plan in “The Hummingbird Project.” That plan is to use Anton’s programming prowess to devise an algorithm that will shave milliseconds off the speed of stock trades — and, in so doing, earn themselves millions in the megacompetitive field of high-frequency trading where a mere millisecond advantage can mean huge profits to the trader with the right mojo. We’re informed that the grail getting the trade speed down to 16 milliseconds is the time it takes for a hummingbird to flap its wings once.
You don’t know the half of it.
Allow writer-director Kim Nguyen to take the audience by the hand and give it a crash course in Wall Street esoterica that will leave heads spinning.
The difficulty of developing the algorithm is only a part of the plot’s complexity. To make the plan work, the cousins have to construct a straight-line fiber-optic tunnel (a tube actually) from Kansas to New Jersey to carry the high-speed signal. To do so, they have to run it under swamps and farm fields and forests and residential neighborhoods, and oh, under the Appalachian Mountains. The cost will be in the millions. Specialized drilling machines and helicopters are involved. Property easements must be purchased. Government permits must be negotiated (or secured with bribes). Raising the cash for all of that is where fast-talking, super-salesman Vincent comes in.
Complexity piles on complexity.
A further complication: The cousins’ former employer, a woman with the personality of a barracuda (played by Salma Hayek with white-frosted hair and a ruthlessly abrasive disposition), is developing her own rival high-speed network, this one involving cellphone towers. Sabotage is her specialty, and the roadblocks she throws up, legal and otherwise, to thwart the cousins are formidable.
Also, a serious illness is a part of the plot.
It’s a lot to pack into a movie of less than two hours of running time. To Nguyen’s credit, he balances the elements of his screenplay with such skill that the audience doesn’t get too lost in the weeds. Well, the explanations of how the algorithm works do cause the eyes to glaze. But the strength of the performances, especially on the part of Eisenberg and Hayek, is such that they help the picture power through the confusion.
Along the way, “Hummingbird” offers cogent commentary on the way unbridled avarice drives the search for even the smallest advantage in the cutthroat world of high finance. The cousins are motivated by it, and later learn the consequences of their race for riches. What we have here is a cautionary tale.
★★★ “The Hummingbird Project,” with Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek. Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. 111 minutes. Rated R for language throughout. Opens March 22 at multiple theaters.