STARTUP.COM ** 1/2
STARRING: Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, Tom Herman
DIRECTOR: Chris Hegedus, Jehane Noujaim
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
RATING: R for language
THE LOWDOWN: Documentary follows an Internet startup company from inception to its forseeable demise.
"Y ou're gonna be a billionaire, I'm gonna be a lowly millionaire," a hip young man laughs as he high-fives his equally young boss in "Startup.com."
That's strike one against this documentary depicting the life of an Internet startup company - it's hard to like anyone whose greed is so evident. "Startup.com" focuses on those intelligent, but selfish and arrogant people who sold themselves to cash in on technology's version of a get-rich-quick scheme: the Internet.
Strike two is the documentary format. In an age where "Survivor," "Real World" and all their reality TV siblings have blurred the line between true emotions and acting, it's difficult to believe anything seen through a camera lens. When Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, the upstart businessman at the center of the film, slams his fist or spews profanities, the emotions don't sit quite right. Is that his natural reaction or was it done for the benefit of a camera? As a viewer, I'm not sure, and that hurts the film's integrity.
Strike three? It's too long and doesn't grab your attention until late when a case of corporate espionage makes your heart sink.
"Startup.com" was co-directed by Chris Hegedus, whose previous work includes the acclaimed behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, "The War Room," and Jehane Noujaim. Filmed in cinema-verite style, it follows the birth of an Internet company from a nameless idea to its forseeable demise.
Tuzman and friend Tom Herman are co-founders of govWorks.com, a site created to facilitate interaction between local government and its citizens. When we first meet them, Tuzman is leaving his prestigious job at Goldman Sachs, and Herman is brushing the knots from the hair of his lovely daughter.
We watch them haggle over a company name (Tuzman's wants "untoCesaer.com," a choice underlining his sense of self-importance) and travel the country for financing. We twinge a bit when, in an early business meeting, they're told they're passe and three years behind the times.
We also get, through the benefit of voyeurism, a sense of doom. These are little boys playing in a big man's world, as one friend says, and they aren't gonna make it. They're sliced and diced and served for dinner as they look for investors. And the gap in vision and philosophy between Tuzman and Herman will only deepen.
Co-director Noujaim lived with her friend, Tuzman, during the year-plus filming. The process gives us some personal insight, but nowhere near what could have been done under that arrangement, and certainly what needed to be done to humanize these people.
Herman's few moments with his daughter are some of the only times the film shows any kindness or humanity. Otherwise, we're left with a harsh view of the business world - and especially the Internet side - that leaves a sour taste. It's a cutthroat world where the stakes are high and loyalty rates low. Even Tuzman and Herman's childhood friendship is no match against greed.
If that's what the filmmakers wanted to show, then they've succeeded because when govWorks.com fails, we don't feel as awful about their misfortune as we would like.