In Austin Chick
's August, Josh Harnett
is having a bad day. As pre-9/11 dot-com hotshot Tom Sterling, he's seen his parents and tech wonk brother treating him with contempt, the girl he's pining for giving him the brush-off, and his startup Internet company blowing up in his face. Drinking morosely at a bar (or as morosely as Hartnett can get) he lashes out at a fellow techie bandit who has just returned to the bar with a condemnatory, "Guys like you ain't got no vision, ain't got no passion, ain't got no soul." True enough. Tom is of course talking about himself but also, by extension, Hartnett's performance and Chick's film.
Chick's morality tale (a sort of insipid remake of Force of Evil except with techno sharks instead of gangsters) is all gloss and pizzazz but mostly pizz and no azz. August deals with two brothers, Tom and Josh (Adam Scott
), who live large during the dot-com boom of '01, creating an in-the-moment start up called Landshark that is riding the top of the bubble with Joshua as the creative designer of the site and Tom as the obnoxious highfalutin promoter and resident SOB. Much like the World Wide Widget company in the satirical musical How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, there is no explanation given for what Landshark actually does; the company just is. But then it isn't. Soon after the opening credits and five months after its inception, the company is in the toilet and Tom is struggling to keep up the appearance of success for both the company and himself. But as in the Talking Heads song, they are both on the Road to Nowhere and somehow Tom has to come to grips with failure and regain his humanity, while looking out for his brother and his new family. Article continues below
The film never happens. Chick depicts the company's meteoric rise in an opening credits sequence and we never get a sense of the exultation and crazy riches of the two brothers as the company begins nor of the heady flim-flam atmosphere of that mad, insane blip in American business history when a guy and a computer could sit in his basement and make millions. Instead of the insane, we get Insana -- Ron Insana, upon whose television show Tom struts his success like a Philadelphia mummer. Of course, Insana sets the proper tone of doom by asking, "Where will these guys be five months from now?" Then a title appears; "Five months later." At that point, Chick foreshadows the rest of the film: we now see that the company is going under, Tom has to deal with being poor, and the viewer says, "So what?" Chick doesn't help his cause by draining his tale of any narrative interest; there's no surprise or discovery in his story. Chick could have taken the film in any number of directions from melodrama to satire. Instead, Chick lays out the programming code without developing the program.
What could have carried the film home is a strong, charismatic performance by the actor playing Tom. Unfortunately, Josh Hartnett plays Tom. It is perhaps not a good thing that the film keeps setting the time frame of the story by inserting news reports of the breakup of the marriage of Nicole Kidman
and Tom Cruise
. Shallow characters who regain their humanity is the stock and trade of Cruise's film career. Seeing Cruise referenced in the film relegates Hartnett's performance to the "what could have been if only Tom Cruise was available and cared" level. Hartnett's Tom is certainly cool, sleek, smooth, and hollow like a failed website, but the Cruise-like passion is missing. We never for a minute believe that Hartnett can bamboozle his family, friends, business associates, and Wall Street. Tom is walkingdead.com -- Tom Cruise without the snark.
About the time of the dot-com bust a documentary was released entitled Startup.com. Check it out. There is more emotion, life, and tragedy in that documentary than in any frame of August.