…is always the hardest
Andy Caspar is a young, hotshot advertising executive that feels unfulfilled even as he drives his late model Porsche and dates a sexy supermodel type co-worker. Hoping to put his engineering education to the test, he quits his high paying job and via some corporate connections, gets hired on at the high tech think tank, The La Honda Institute. Reigning supergenius Francis Benoit blackballs Andy from his promising, prominent Titan project and assigns him instead to the organization's lowest priority project: the development of a laptop computer that retails for $100. Scrambling to fill the slots on his crew, Andy is forced to accept a group of less than stellar applicants. There's Salman, a Hindi hacker with an exceptional intellect and a mysterious chat room "girlfriend"; Tiny, a physically humongous, socially retarded agoraphobic line code wizard; and Darrell, a hostile technology fabricator with an aversion to germs and a hatred of society in general. Together they try to solve what many consider to be the campus joke assignment. But eventual success leads to even bigger problems as competing personal and corporate interests along with a depressed dot-com industry causes friction and failure among the group of misguided and misplaced geeks, who must then fight to save their integrity, and their invention, from exploitation.
The First $20 Million is a bland Real Genius for the 21st Century, a movie that champions the intelligent and the newly wired savant over the gaudy, glamorous, or greedy. It succeeds in creating some engaging, believable characters out of what could have been tired nerd stereotypes (the fat guy, the Indian, etcetera). It offers several interesting plot twists and a rousing "us vs. them" sentiment that keeps the audience guessing and hoping until the very end. The only problem is that, in all honesty, it's not funny. Sold under the by now moldy stunt title of "a dot.com-edy," The First $20 Million is only moderately refreshing, enjoyable and enthusiastic. And unlike the aforementioned Val Kilmer vehicle, the movie fails to generate any big belly laughs or witty insights. The material here is either extremely dated (it's only five years old and seems derivative and old fashioned, like a Commodore 64) or just not clever (are cell phone/silicone breast implant jokes even remotely funny? Were they ever?). What could have been a darkly comic skewering of the entire microchip/Internet industry rat race and crash or a wacky breakneck farce is instead a gentle, too simple saga of overcoming adversity and social perception through friendship and determination. Set within an environment where anyone with a 150 IQ or a degree from DeVry feels right at home, the movie misses more chances at hilarity than it takes.
Most of the blame for this misfiring falls on the source material and its interpreters. Jon Favreau, the acclaimed actor/writer/director, uses his skill with words and characterization to good effect in films like Made and Swingers. But here, along with the untried co-writer Gary Tieche, they create tame comic characters and then fail to give them anything hilarious to do or react to. Based on a popular novel by Po Bronson, the cinematic version of The First $20 Million is all surface, amiable but never completely engaging. We don't always care if the characters win; we just hope and pray that the plot doesn't cheat us. And since we never invest much of our hatred into them, we could care less if the bad guys are thwarted (after all, what did they really want to do except make money?). Director Mick Jackson also fails to generate the requisite energy level. This is a comedy, after all. He could have derived anarchic insanity within some of the set pieces and sequences that, instead, he lets causally roll by and peter out. One can also sense his nervous anxiety over the technology involved here (holograms, virtual reality, etcetera), fearing it would overwhelm the average audience. So he resorts to long discussions and multiple analogies revolving around how this $99 computer will be created and function. In humor, where timing is everything, extended arguments over how to maximize the cost/benefit ratio in a standard motherboard configuration defuses any potential laughs to be found.
Still, the performances are uniformly good, and make for sweet, endearing characters. Anjul Nigam plays Salman with the requisite dopey New Delhi accent, but it is the only part of his performance that seems forced or fake. Jake Busey, looking less like his father and more like the demonic serial killer from beyond the grave he played in Peter Jackson's The Frighteners, gives Darrell an interesting combination of menace and mince, all to cover up his true dork leanings. Only Ethan Suplee as the incredibly obese Tiny is saddled with Fat Bastard style jabs at his hygiene and eating dysfunction. Even an attempt at breaking the human mountain mindset (by providing him with a chesty, exotic love interest) fails as it resorts to food/sex innuendoes instead of true emotion. The remaining players are all good, especially Rosario Dawson as an artist with personal (and sexual) integrity and Enrico Colantoni (Galaxy Quest) essaying the tricky task of creating an overly intelligent, menacingly fey villain. In the lead, Adam Garcia is charming, but rather vacuous. More con artist than data processor, you never get the impression that he's a true intellect. Always relying on the thoughts and efforts of others, it's hard to feel his lack of accomplishment when he never seems to do anything tangible except organize everyone around a common goal. Each and every character here is believable and interesting. But they cannot make merry out of the minutely amusing The First $20 Million.
20th Century Fox offers a very stripped down, low budget DVD package for this title. On the image front, you get the choice of either full screen or anamorphic widescreen on that old standby, the flip disc. While perfectly serviceable, skip the full and go to the 1.85:1 letterboxing. It preserves some of the more interesting sets and locations director Mick Jackson utilizes. Aurally, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is also adequate, but nothing special. This is a movie built around conversations and interpersonal situations, so there is very little channel-to-channel hijinks or total immersion environments. You can here some separation in a couple of scenes (a walk past a group of hecklers, for one) but more times than not, everything stays up front and balanced. There are no extras offered, not a publicity puff piece or a behind the scenes featurette. Jackson is a very successful Hollywood director, with credits like The Bodyguard, L.A. Story, and Tuesdays with Morrie to his credit. It seems a shame that a commentary track or interview could not have been arranged. The same goes for Favreau, an indie darling who seems never at a loss for words, either in other interview settings or on his own bonus tracks. It's obvious that Fox has very little faith in this film and perhaps with good reason. While entertaining in a light, innocuous fashion, The First $20 Million is far from the laugh out loud yuck fest it longs to be. Your next $20 would be better spent on some other DVD title.
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