In August, directed by Austin Chick, it is August 2001, and Tom Sterling (Josh Hartnett) is a startup entrepreneur with an ego as big as the debt that he has taken on to found a firm that seems to produce market share, but not much else. The setting of the story, just before the 9/11 attacks, suggests that it all seems so trivial now.
You can say that again. Stories about dot.com startups that begin with bravado and end with burnout are, as the protagonists might put it, 'sooooh third-quarter 1999,' and this one has nothing extraordinary about it to compensate for seven years' staleness.
Josh Hartnett's fans around the world may give it a try, as may die-hards who won't ever pass up the chance to see David Bowie, yet audiences are likely to view stories about the internet startup war and the nuances of its battlefield with even less urgency than they view screen stories about real battlefields like Iraq, which they are not going to see.
The current Wall Street woes will make August even more marginal in the marketplace.
The film opens with Tom (Hartnett) standing in the bathroom of skanky club, looking in a mirror as a beautiful woman sits beside him.
We're meant to guess what just happened, as Hartnett walks out into the street, as if he's updating the overrated but iconic 1980's chronicle of New York yuppie stupor, the novel Bright Lights, Big City.
Soon we see Tom in action as the swashbuckling CEO of Landshark. He's a dressed-down dot.com version of Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone's Wall Street, with sneakers and a rock and roll look from costume designer Erica Monroe that are meant to differentiate him from the Banana Republic nerds all over the internet landscape.
He's brash in deal-making, and mocks others for their lack of brashness, like Josh, his more modest web designer brother/partner (Adam Scott).
It's not clear what Landshark does - now the boilerplate for the depiction of startups that crashed - although Tom and his team rattle off computer slang and stock terms like robots, which is what they are under Austin Chick's direction.
He swaggers late into meetings, bluffs his adversaries, and gives a ballsy speech off the (Prada) cuff to a worshipful audience of nerd entrepreneur-clones, declaring that everything 'is over' - a phrase that you wish were over in this film - and that what's he's after is 'pure e.'
You'll hear echoes of Tom Cruise's notorious speech in Magnolia. Yet the company is crashing, and price of Tom's ambition is right in front of him - a radical disapproving father (Rip Torn), a beautiful architect girlfriend who has given up (Naomie Harris), and a quietly talented brother who turns away from him (Adam Scott).
An older arrogant corporate raider (David Bowie), who eventually acquires the company, delivers a speech on Tom as the poster child of moral decay.
The wages of corporate greed and vanity have never been more stereotyped or solemn. You see none of the quirkiness or dark idiosyncrasies that we saw in a probing documentary like Alex Gibney's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Austin Chick's direction races us through signature locations of the time, with techno-music from Nathan Larson reminding you annoyingly of each place with what sounds like an audio-ID.
Clubs are places for hedonism, offices full of Apple products are for shoot-from-the-hip business leadership, apartments have great trendy fixtures but no warmth, and a 1969 Camaro convertible is Tom's phallic accessory of choice.
Exposed brick is the interior material of choice in Rishele Berliner's production design. The script by Harold Rodman has some memorable lines but the subject of August and its characters now seem more suited to satire than to drama.
You find yourself laughing at a lot of the wrong places, especially at over-acting by Hartnett and Rip Torn. The wonderful Naomie Harris looks great, thanks to cameraman Andrij Parekh, but can't do much with this role.
It's a sad coincidence that a fine film about the personal toll of greed and ruthless ambition in business, There Will Be Blood, is filling theatres and awards ceremonies just as August makes its premiere. We'll have to wait until anything comparable about the dot.com era comes along.
57th & Irving
David Guy Levy