[Screen It]

(2001) (Ryan Phillippe, Tim Robbins) (PG-13)

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Suspense/Thriller: A young computer programmer tries to figure out what's going on and then save his own skin when his dream job of working for a multi-billion dollar software company turns into something entirely different.
Milo Hoffman (RYAN PHILLIPPE) is a young computer programmer who, with his friends Larry Banks (TYGH RUNYAN), Teddy Chin (YEE JEE TSO) and Brian Bissel (NATE DUSHKU), is about to launch a start-up computer company. Yet, his and Teddy's programming prowess has garnered the attention of Gary Winston (TIM ROBBINS), the CEO of NURV, a multi-billion dollar software corporation.

While Teddy is against everything that Gary and NURV stand for, and Justice Department agent Lyle Barton (RICHARD ROUNDTREE) wants him to work for them against NURV, Milo accepts a job from them and moves with his girlfriend, Alice Poulson (CLAIRE FORLANI), to the company's Pacific Northwest campus.

Milo is immediately assigned to work on Synapse, NURV's latest digital convergence product that will tie together all communications devices around the world. With a deadline of just over a month to get Synapse completed, Milo and his fellow workers, including Lisa Calighan (RACHEL LEIGH COOK), put in a lot of time and energy into realizing Gary's vision.

Yet, not everything is as perfect as it might seem. After receiving mysterious bits of code and having one of his friends murdered, Milo begins to get a bit suspicious about Gary and his company. As the CEO's right-hand men, Phil (NED BELLAMY) and Randy (SCOTT BELLIS) and chief of security, Bob Shrot (DOUGLAS McFERRAN), begin watching his every move and equally become suspicious of him, Milo tries to figure out exactly what's going on and what to do once he figures that out.

OUR TAKE: 3.5 out of 10
If I were a lawyer representing software developer Microsoft in the still ongoing antitrust lawsuit between them and the U.S. Government and things weren't looking good, I'd evoke the Parker Brothers defense. Somewhat akin to the insanity plea, the PB defense argues the fact that most kids in the U.S. grew up playing Monopoly and were thus conditioned to crave and strive to become monopolistic.

If you agree with the government's case, perhaps Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates passed "Go," owned every hotel and even bought "Free Parking" too many times while growing up, thus setting the stage for future, related events.

Whatever the case and regardless of one's view of the case, there's no denying that the way to establish wealth and potential monopolies - at least until the recent stock market stumble/crash/meltdown - was through computers and the Internet just like becoming a lawyer in the '80s was the desired road to wealth.

How appropriate then, that this week's release of "Antitrust" is really just an updated and retooled version of the Sydney Pollack/Tom Cruise film, "The Firm." A tale of a young man who learns that his dream job is really a nightmare in disguise, the film is structurally similar to the fabulous 1993 film, but lacks the same degree of talent and execution in front of and behind the camera.

As such, it comes off feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a flimsy Internet startup rather than a solid, blue chip endeavor. It also requires a huge dosage of suspension of disbelief as it runs through unbelievable scenarios and developments faster than dot-coms do with venture capital.

Notwithstanding those structural/plot similarities to "The Firm," this film starts off in a moderately enticing fashion, with Tim Robbins obviously playing a Bill Gates type character who lures in the talented and star struck protagonist played by Ryan Phillippe. The issues of monopolies and antitrust issues versus the spoils of capitalism are also briefly touched upon, but the film's depth on such matters never extends beyond the superficial.

Instead, it wants to be something of a high tech version of the traditional suspense thriller. Yet, while the elements are in place for all of that to occur, the way in which director Peter Howitt ("Sliding Doors") and screenwriter Howard Franklin ("The Man Who Knew Too Little," "Someone to Watch Over Me") handle, or mishandle if you will, the material results in just a mildly engaging, but increasingly preposterous film.

Not only are we supposed to buy the many ludicrous plot developments and character reversals that occur (and there are plenty of both that should induce copious amounts of eye rolling), but we're also asked to accept, without reservation, the protagonist's ability to instantly operate and hack into various computers and/or computer systems. To make matters worse, those computers also just so happen to connect, in ever so convenient ways, to every bit of incriminating evidence (including easily retrievable video footage of a murder) that the protagonist needs to discover.

Rather than taking a more subtle approach to unleashing such occurrences, the filmmakers often slam the viewer over the head with them, as if 1) viewers are too dumb to comprehend/grasp what's transpired and 2) such tactics would make such material/developments that much more powerful.

The most blatant case of that occurs when the protagonist gets his first true sign that something fishy is going on with the company. Rather than allow that development to unfold in a subtle way, Howitt uses a series of heavily edited flashbacks to drive home the point.

About the only way if could have been any more obvious would have been to have text on the screen flashing "Pay Attention - Important Stuff Here!" It's a clear sign that the director doesn't trust the material to do its job, and today's viewers are obviously too seasoned and savvy to need such conspicuous guidance, especially when the revelations aren't particularly complex or confounding.

It certainly doesn't help matters that the story's protagonist - at least as written and then portrayed by Ryan Phillippe ("The Way of the Gun," "Cruel Intentions") - is one of its weaker elements. Although the role has all of the requisite characteristics for such a part - going from smart but na´ve to paranoid and then resourceful -- it never manages to transcend the feeling of being completely contrived. Phillippe's wooden performance certainly doesn't help matters, as it isn't likely to get viewers rooting for the character's success.

While Rachel Leigh Cook ("Get Carter," "She's All That") and Claire Forlani ("Boys and Girls," "Meet Joe Black") are generally okay in their respective roles, there's nothing about their characters or performances that's particularly memorable. The only person who seems to have any fun - and is any fun to watch -- is Tim Robbins ("Arlington Road," "The Shawshank Redemption"). Dressed and speaking in a manner that's obviously supposed to evoke thoughts of Gates, Robbins eats up the role, keeping us - at least for a while - questioning his status of being an ambitious geek or a ruthless megalomaniac.

If one can accept or mostly overlook its contrived and/or stupid moments - such as the protagonist confiding in a coworker who obviously has to be in on the conspiracy - the film comes off as a mildly entertaining, if not particularly original yarn. Unfortunately, most of our brains are too hard-wired to allow for such reprogramming, and such problems consequently do nothing but distract and detract from the proceedings. As a result, "Antitrust" rates as just a 3.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 8, 2001 / Posted January 12, 2001

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