If I hadn’t already been aware that it was January, “Antitrust” would have been a stinging jolt of reality. This thriller in name only is all too characteristic of the cinematic scrap heap that is the first month of the year: surface slickness in lieu of the slightest sign of substance.
With the toplining female stars being Rachæl Leigh Cook and Claire Forlani, one expects the male lead to be their respective “She’s All That” and “Boys and Girls” paramour, Freddie Prinze Jr. Thankfully, the poster boy for teen schlock is nowhere to be found in “Antitrust”; unfortunately, the person in his place is no better: fellow “I Know What You Did Last Summer” star and Tiger Beat staple, Ryan Phillippe. The improbably cast Phillippe plays the improbably named Milo Hoffmann, a brilliant young computer programmer (!) who is suddenly recruited to join big-name firm NURV (an acronym for “Never Underestimate Radical Vision,” if you had to ask) by its Bill Gates-ish founder, the insanely wealthy and brilliant Gary Winston (Tim Robbins).
Or maybe Winston isn’t so brilliant, for it is not long before Milo deduces that his mentor’s revolutionary, monopoly-pushing ideas are actually stolen from young programmers from across the country — who have, perhaps not so coincidentally, all died mysterious deaths. When the latest victim of a shady, untimely demise is none other than Milo’s best friend/sacrificial token minority Teddy Chen, Milo sets out to find the truth, a task that proves to be not as difficult as finding a trustworthy ally (hence the oh-so-clever double entendre of a title).
Writer Howard Franklin’s premise is lifted directly from John Grisham’s “The Firm” (albeit with a chic computer angle), but given Hollywood’s generally environmentally conscious attitude regarding story ideas, that’s not so much a problem as “Antitrust”‘s failure to generate the faintest hint of suspense. When one of the big would-be nailbiting set pieces is a frantic search for sesame seeds in some home-cooked Chinese cuisine (don’t ask), any hopes of experience real thrills are quickly laid to rest — not to mention those of finding any trace of basic believability. Add in Peter Howitt’s overwrought direction (heavy on the meaningful montage and strategic slo-mo) and the urge to laugh at all the flabbergasting happenings is impossible to stifle.
The cast appears to operate under the belief that the more serious they take the ludicrous material, the better; were they ever mistaken. Casting Phillippe, who has heretofore displayed a very limited acting range at best, is always a huge risk, but giving this pretty boy the role of a brain is a flat-out invitation for disaster. It takes more than a simple pair of glasses to add wisdom to the frozen male model pout of his face, and his affectless voice further mangles the already-awkward, techno-jargon-heavy dialogue. Cook and Forlani’s work essentially boils down to varying degrees of deer-in-the-headlights looks, but to be fair, it’s hard to imagine anyone having a clear idea how to tackle the barely-thought-out female roles. Cook’s role as Milo’s co-worker Lisa Calighan is especially problematic, thanks to an arbitrary “dark secret” that plays into the story in the most insulting way imaginable. Robbins was obviously brought aboard to give “Antitrust” some appearance of class, but he takes a general cue from Howitt’s direction by overplaying the one-dimensional villainy.
“Antitrust” is this year’s “The Skulls”: a glossy product where a teenybopper idol is plopped into an intelligence-free thriller-type vehicle. But I can’t imagine this film eking out the same frightfully decent box office take as that equally inane Joshua Jackson showcase; after all, the fawning female Phillippe fans hankering for a hit of the hottie hunk don’t get anything on par with “The Skulls”‘ Josh-running-on-a-pier-in-a-snug-singlet scene. And if “Antitrust” isn’t even good for cheap exploitation of its heartthrob star for his adolescent admirers, then it truly is worthless for all audiences.