AntiTrust is that rarity among Hollywood films, a perfect match of form and content. This is no compliment: the story harps on the dangers of technology, and the crass, hyperactive storytelling, studded with tacky special effects that were dated on arrival, demonstrates all too well how seductive digital tricks can be, and how disastrous.
Ryan Phillippe plays Milo, a genius software designer right out of Stanford who’s hired away from his garage startup by Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), the head of N.U.R.V. Technologies. Winston is struggling to finish the programming for SYNAPSE, a new technology that will link all forms of communication in a single satellite feed, before the Department of Justice destroys his empire.
Winston is really Bill Gates, of course, and the movie’s exploiting our paranoia about the global reach of Microsoft. Robbins gives a joyously hammy performance, careening from blandly reassuring milquetoast to cackling villain. His Winston is a nerdy Mephistopheles who greedily scarfs potato chips and who, for all his billions, can’t get a decent haircut. Robbins is at his best here when he’s smarmiest, playing the smooth, understanding patriarch to his hero-worshipping employees or stiffly smiling his way through a SYNAPSE commercial. Up until the film devolves into a chase, he has plenty of room to play, and his grace notes – the milky condescension his voice takes on as he "relates" to an underling, an ineffective attempt to defuse his arrogant persona on a news broadcast with shy laughter – are nearly worth the price of admission.
But not quite. Director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors) seems to realize that he’s working with creaky material, so he tries to pump it up with flashy visual effects. There are the stuttering edits of Requiem for a Dream and the oddly static zooms from last season’s Gap ads. Yet for all its concern with cutting edge technology, Antitrust is built from the hoariest of thriller cliches. The filmmakers don’t just recycle gimmicks from other movies (the elaborate ruse that gets Milo into and out of a building is a scam that convenience store thieves figured out decades ago, tarted up here with snazzy computer graphics), they reuse their own tricks again and again. The first time we see an endangered Milo frantically snooping while someone dangerous is about to find him out, the tension generated through labored crosscutting between Milo and the intruder is relatively effective. The fourth time, it’s self-parody.
Worst of all are the movie’s two pivotal scenes. In the first, Milo realizes what we caught on to in the opening credits: Winston is not the altruistic father figure he passed himself off as but a thieving, manipulative thug. Not content to just let us watch Milo catch the slip of the tongue that confirms his suspicions, Howitt piles on the tricks. Milo is shot in a variation of Hitchcock’s Vertigo shot (the camera zooms in and tracks back simultaneously, so that he stays fixed in the frame while the background shifts wildly out of focus) with shots of Winston superimposed for emphasis. The soundtrack rings with every significant line that’s been said thus far. Howitt does everything but reach out and grab us by the shoulders, yelling, "Get it? GET IT? He’s BAD!!!"
If anything, the next scene is worse. Milo confronts his girlfriend Alice (Claire Forlani), who convinced him to take the job in the first place. They have a yelling match, as he explains what he’s discovered and she tries to make him see how paranoid he sounds. It’s a badly written, exposition-laden scene, and the actors are encouraged to scream and gesticulate. What makes it unwatchable, though, is the fact that the camera work and editing are even more frenetic than the acting. The handheld camera tips and lunges, whipping from Milo to Alice, with jump cuts flipping them across the frame. In The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier has made something of this style, using the home movie quality of his shooting and cutting to create profound intimacy between the audience and his players. Here, with the actors flailing and yelling the plot points at us, it’s just an attempt to goose up bad material.
When Howitt backs off from the pyrotechnics and gives his actors space to work, he gets decent performances. Phillippe is beginning to shed his bland, male model quality and manages some touching moments. He’s particularly good with Forlani, who takes an incoherent role and makes it emotionally credible. Whatever pleasures the film offers seep through its cracks – it’s Robbins’ wit and the young actors’ fragile moments together that linger, not the silliness that makes up 90% of the experience.