Few leading male actors have followed the roundabout career trajectory of Josh Hartnett. Though indisputably tall, dark and handsome, Hartnett still manages to avoid the pratfalls of typecasting by landing roles in strange projects with questionable appeal. While this choice comes at the expense of a quality resume, his performances can lend barely competent films at least one redeeming ingredient: I could give or take Wicker Park, Resurrecting the Champ, and even the good intentions of The Black Dahlia, but each benefits from Hartnett's expressive glare, furrowed brow and whispered delivery. He's an instant generator of gravitas.
Although August, director Austin Chick's second feature after the relationship drama XX/XY, doesn't qualify as Hartnett's best movie, it's certainly one of his meatiest roles – right up there with his work in the unfairly maligned Lucky Number Slevin. As the crudely pompous CEO of the mysterious start-up company Landshark in New York City during the summer before 9/11, Hartnett offers a maddened, garrulous anti-hero replete with dark humor and sustained by a surge of baseless confidence. The movie follows the audacious entrepreneur, Tom, as his fifteen minutes begin to run out – and it concludes with him facing off against a freakishly powerful David Bowie as the icy corporate foil. Despite the age gap, both men exude an eerie amount of restraint – which is not the case for the film. August adds up to less than it aspires to be, but it's populated with enough curiosities to keep you watching.
Hartnett spends almost every scene of the movie dominating the room. As Tom rules with an iron fist over his devout staff, terrifies potential clients and enjoys his exuberant nightlife, he hurls phrases in high-minded, utterly vapid biz-speak, moving far too fast for anyone to keep pace. ("Landshark is not a vehicle," he says. "Landshark is the road itself." Um, okay. "That's so third quarter '99!" he spouts. Meaning?) At one point, he tells a possible business partner that what they want, as moneymakers in the internet era, has less to do with the specifics of e-commerce than with "pure 'E.'" It doesn't take long to see past Tom's assertiveness and figure out he's packing pure BS.
Before long, somebody calls him on it: His father. Stealing the show, Rip Torn shows up in a few disparate family scenes to challenge his son's seemingly invulnerable ego. "What do you actually do?" Torn asks with his trademark gruffness. He speaks for audience members who might be inclined to shout as much at the screen. Tom claims he's leading a global village revolution first dreamed up by academics like his cantankerous pop, but he doesn't really have a clear answer to the question.
The irony of Tom's luxurious lifestyle, which indicates the benefits of an undefined accomplishment, is juxtaposed against the admirable intent of his brother Joshua (Adam Scott), who lives a practical existence with his wife and newborn child. Josh is clearly the brains behind whatever the hell Landshark does, but he cowers behind the unrelenting brawn of his sibling. When Tom tells him to stop apologizing all the time, Josh meekly replies, "I'm so sorry."
From Napster genius Shawn Fanning to Mark Zuckerberg, the YouTube guys and beyond, America's digital revolution has played host to a number of hotshot businessmen barely out of their teens getting rich on web-based schemes. Tom represents their darker side, and that's what makes August a fairly intriguing study of twenty-first century moneymaking. But the wink-nudge effect of the particular setting, with an impotent Wall Street right around the corner, never really comes into play.
That's because the script, by Howard A. Rodman (Savage Grace), feels overloaded with smart conversations, and too involved with the process of creating an 'inside baseball' logic for the start-up realm. I disagree with the degree of harshness in this recent comment left at Defamer, but it's still a fair summation of the viewing experience: "After the first conference scene, you know the entire movie is garbage. Landshark! What does it do? I'm so worth your money! Heavy data! Secure data! Wireless resources! Get me a latte! David Bowie!" Yep, and roll credits. The movie itself, however, grows critical of its own impenetrable density. "Just because I'm smart doesn't mean I'm stupid," Joshua rants to Tom. Impatient viewers might share his pain.