AntiTrust


(USA 2001)
Rated: PG-13

Starring:
Ryan Phillippe, Claire Forlani, Rachael Leigh Cook, Tim Robbins

Director: Peter Howitt

Writing credits: Howard Franklin

Metro Goldwin-Mayer * 108 minutes

 

Let me be perfectly clear: ANTI-TRUST is a geek movie. Since I seem to be the only critic on the planet who actually liked this movie, and one of the few critic on the planet with over ten years of actual Life in Geekdom, the two may be related. But if you're a programmer, if you hate Microsoft, if you're paranoid, or even if you just have a poster of Ryan Phillippe on the wall, you'll be at least moderately entertained by this flick.

Wildean fantasy-boy Phillippe plays against type as Milo Hoffman, an alleged programming genius, who along with his adorably Beatlesque friends Brian (Nate Dushku) and Phil (Ned Bellamy) and head geekboy Terry "Who Says Asian Men Ain't Sexy?" Chin (Yee Jee Tso), is developing some sort of change-the-world open source software in, inevitably a garage. These intrepid Hardy Boys are recruited by evil computer Mogul Bill Gates -- uh, I mean Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), so that their flying fingers can help him reach his target date to launch Synapse -- an unrealistically grandiose network of fiber optics, satellites, and wireless communications that will connect every communications device on the planet, each of them running Windows -- uh, I mean Synapse.

Only Milo succumbs to the temptations of Winston, joining NURV (Never Underestimate Radical Vision), Winston's Evil Empire in the Northwest, and leaves his buddies behind in the garage, now moved to a Really Nasty Neighborhood. Out in Seattle, Milo and his girlfriend Alice (a pinched-looking Claire Forlani) move into a strange house that's a Craftsman bungalow in front but has two stories in the back. Milo starts out by playing a bespectacled Nick Carraway to Winston's techno-Gatsby, until Howard Franklin's script forgets about F. Scott Fitzgerald and metamorphoses into a remake of THE FIRM. Soon the untimely death of one of his buddies causes Milo to realize the nefarious deeds in which his mentor-hero is involved, and that Winston will stop at nothing to bring Synapse to market -- on time. "This business is digital," Winston says. "You're either a one or a zero. Alive, or dead." Except that with Winston, this isn't just MBA talk. Will Milo succeed in bringing down his mentor-nemesis? Will justice triumph? Will Phillippe get nekkid yet again? Will he crack a smile? Will he speak with some inflection for once? And what about those sesame seeds, anyway? You saw THE NET, you saw THE FIRM, you saw WALL STREET, and so you already know. The question is whether getting there is worth the trouble.

The answer is a qualifed "Yes," if only to watch Tim Robbins have a rollicking good time playing the kind of ruthless corporate greedmonger he loathes in real life. Robbins' overly earnest liberal persona tends to make us forget just how wryly funny he can be. Using the same boyish, smarmy malevolence that made BOB ROBERTS so chilling, he paints Winston as the kind of guy who could seduce a young programmer into selling his soul and still sleep like a baby. Still enamored of the beauty of nuts-and-bolts geekdom while living in a billion dollar house, he stands behind Milo, grinning and munching Pringles, spewing crumbs all over his hapless hired mouse as he observes, "Greatest trainset in the world, eh?" Robbins has Gates' actual and reputed mannerisms down pat -- the faux-gentleness in his speech, the hunched-over gait, the studied benevolence that barely masks the maniacal single-mindedness in his eyes. If he goes over the top into Lithgow-esque chewing of the obviously styrofoam stones that comprise Winston's grotto-like office, well, he can be forgiven, because he's having so much fun.

I sure hope he taught his young co-star Phillippe something about fun during the making of this film. No kid this good-looking, who gets this much work (a cool mil for this one alone), who's got one cute and smart little cookie for a wife, and has done all this without doing much other than standing around and pouting, has any business being so glum. I keep waiting to see if this sullen James Dean manque can live up to the raves his directors always give him, and indeed, he does actually produce something vaguely resembling a performance here...for him, that is...and only if speaking with a soupcon of stifled passion and cracking an occasional smile constitutes a performance. I have to wonder if the angsty boys Phillippe always portrays so somnombulantly merely reflect his own disgust with his chosen profession. He's supposed to be the sex symbol here, but he is blown off the screen by the unknown Yee Jee Tso as the noble Teddy. With his wild, permed Abbie Hoffman hair and vivid enthusiasm, Tso is the guy I wanted to see triumph over evil here. What a movie this would have been with a geeky, yet sexy, young Asian man as the hero. Indeed, if real techies looked like this bunch, girls would be majoring in computer science in droves. But alas, Tso's breakthrough energy is dispatched all too soon, and Phillippe's little-boy-lost cipher has to carry the movie. In order to root for the good guy, you have to care about him, and all I ever seem to want to do with Phillippe is slap him and say, "You're young! You're good-looking! You've got the world kicked in the ass! Now enjoy it, dammit!" Mr. Winston, you offed the wrong guy. No, this is not a spoiler, because if you have the brain of the average house cat, you'll see it coming a mile away.

Hollywood's treatment of female techies is inevitably ghastly (see also: Sandra Bullock in THE NET), but here we have Rachael Leigh Cook, she of the frighteningly immobile face and equally immobile acting. A punkette without piercings, she's supposed to be a genius graphics gal who also codes killer user interfaces. Yeah, right. And I am the Queen of Rumania.

Yet for all its faults and the preposterousness of the Synapse concept even in a Bill Gates-dominated world, Anti-Trust gets the little things plausible, if not right. Presenting the opening credits with quasi-HTML tags is a cute gimmick, and if the code verges on XML, well, that can be forgiven. Less forgivable, however, are the paroxysms of rapture into which the characters fall while looking at what is obviously simple string-handling from a first-semester Programming in C class. However, it's at least recognizable code, and command-line stuff that's close to real Unix, running on a plausible operating systems on recognizable boxes. Yes, ANTI-TRUST features a lot of typing. In a techno-flick that does not feature James Bond, that's somewhat inevitable. And yes, it's a remake of THE FIRM, albeit one with a much cooler villain and mercifully without the spectacle of Wilford Brimley brandishing a gun. Perhaps you have to be a programmer to like this film, but for all of us who have seen a half-day's work disappear under the Dreaded Blue Screen O'Death at least once a week, this little Gates revenge-fantasy is curiously satisfying.

 

- Jill Cozzi

ANTI-TRUST official site


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