Los Angeles Times


Friday January 12, 2001

     In the suspense thriller "Antitrust," Tim Robbins is so obviously parodying Bill Gates that the filmmakers feel compelled to have the Microsoft mogul mentioned by way of a decidedly self-conscious disclaimer. Writer Peter Howitt imagines Robbins' Gary Winston as a boyish megalomaniac with a fanatic's gleam in his eye who comes across more as a cult leader than a captain of industry.
     Winston's Portland-based NURV (Never Underestimate Radical Vision) is on the verge of launching Synapse, billed as "the first satellite delivery system linking every communication device on the planet." There's a hitch, however, that Winston and his team haven't as yet been able to overcome: Synapse is taking too long to download its data, which results in fuzzy images. NURV has a policy of aggressively recruiting the best and the brightest young stars on digital's horizon, which leads it to a pair of Stanford whiz kids, Milo Hoffman (Ryan Phillippe) and Teddy Chin (Yee Jee Tso), who are trying to get backing to launch their own company that would operate on the principle that "human knowledge belongs to the world."
     When Winston's reps come calling, Teddy unhesitatingly rejects the offer, for NURV embodies the ruthless, monopolistic practices he detests. However, idealistic Milo, with encouragement from his girlfriend, Alice (Claire Forlani), meets with Winston and swiftly falls under his brilliantly persuasive spell. Teddy is appalled by Milo's decision to go with NURV, pointing out that the company is the target of a Department of Justice investigation for stifling competition. Winston is actually engaged in far worse, as Milo will soon discover by accident, for the mogul all too well realizes that "any kid with a good idea in a garage anywhere in the world can put us out of business."
     Essentially, "Antitrust" is "The Firm" set in the world of computers instead of law. As such, it works up considerable suspense as a classic David versus Goliath plot plays out in a quite convincing depiction of the scary universe of NURV, whose workings are made pretty clear even to those of us verging on computer illiteracy. The ingenious payoff, which recalls that of the anti-TV "A Face in the Crowd," is stunningly cinematic.
     But while "Antitrust" is crisply directed by "Sliding Doors' " Peter Howitt, it is ultimately more routine than provocative, despite the timeliness and seriousness of the issues it raises.
     "Antitrust," for which Don Davis has composed a helpfully edgy score, had the potential to develop into a comic satire as dark as "Dr. Strangelove," in which Robbins' gleeful portrayal would have been ideal. Since "Antitrust" is conventional in conception, Robbins' Winston comes off more like a typical crazed James Bond villain determined to take over the world than a truly disturbing menace. Phillippe does come through impressively as a young man with the smarts and courage to take on a monolithic villain amid mounting paranoia.
     Howard Franklin has written Milo's gradual loss of innocence quite convincingly, but his plot depends upon a series of reversals in character so abrupt as to recall those transformations from villain to savior--and vice versa--favored in Victorian melodrama.
     As happens so often in contemporary mainstream films involving a highly technical realm, Franklin has had to focus so intently on making "Antitrust's" intricate computer universe function plausibly that the film's supporting players, who include Rachael Leigh Cook as Milo's ultra-shy NURV colleague, must gamely round out, through sheer presence, their underdeveloped roles.
     If only the script was as subtly witty as Catherine Hardwicke's production design, which incorporates high-tech sleekness with expanses of rock surfaces in the style of the Getty Museum, but for a feeling of darkness rather than light. Hardwicke and cinematographer John Bailey bring to these ultra-contemporary, chic settings a depth of perspective and a sense of scale that suggest the ominous grandiosity of an Albert Speer design.
     "Antitrust" is a not-bad, highly topical diversion; it's too bad it's too square to be more than that.

Antitrust, 2001. PG-13, for some violence and brief language. An MGM presentation in association with Hyde Park Entertainment of an Industry Entertainment production. Director Peter Howitt. Producers Nick Wechsler, Keith Addis and David Nicksay. Executive producers David Hoberman, Ashok Amritaj, C.O. Erickson, Julia Chasman. Screenplay by Howard Franklin. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editor Zach Staenberg. Music Don Davis. Costumes Maya Mani. Production designer Catherine Hardwicke. Art director Doug Byggdin. Set decorator Rose Marie McSherry. Running time: 2 hours. Ryan Phillippe as Milo Hoffman. Tim Robbins as Gary Winston. Claire Forlani as Alice Poulson. Rachael Leigh Cook as Lisa Calighan.

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