"The values that you grew up with are that people come before things," offers the mother of one of the protagonists of Startup.com, "and that didn't seem to be a part of this new world." You sure got that right, ma'am. While this new video documentary by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim strives hard to reveal the intimate details of a friendship-turned-partnership-turned-online crisis, it is most successful as a simple warning: Do not cloister yourself in nasty, fluorescent-lit rooms stacked with ugly beige PCs dedicated to fleecing citizens already being fleeced by their local governments. Capisce?
Of course, if our twentysomething subjects Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman had figured that out before this project's inception two years ago, there'd be no movie, so we begin with seemingly casual introductions, yearbook pictures, that sort of thing. The more drastically self-obsessed of the friends is Tuzman (former roommate of co-director Noujaim), who quits the New York investment firm Goldman-Sachs, mumbling, "I'm going to...uh...start an Internet company." Together with Herman, he polls customers in a fast-food joint, struggling to land a sensational name. "Hello," returns Herman, lightly jeering him, "I'm Kaleil, and I'm calling from UntoCaesar.com to sell you a $2 million package, Mr. Mayor."
Once the mockery and meditation (not enough of the former, too much of the latter) are stamped upon this product, we get down--way down--to business. In early 1999, the rookies settle upon the name govWorks.com and begin securing millions in backing from private investors. Swiftly expanding from eight to 25 employees (and so on), they take up residence on West Broadway in downtown Manhattan. A little more than a year later, they've developed a government Internet portal and payment-processing software, expanding again and relocating to new offices in New York and California, plus representative offices in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
What this equals on hundreds of hours of home-movie-style videotape (whittled down for our consumption to a none-too-merciful 103 minutes) is a whole lotta yammering into cell phones, vague grimacing into the distance, whining about a lack of sleep and shouting out generic and truly embarrassing company cheers. By the time govWorks.com is up and running in August 2000, processing NYC parking-ticket payments, one truly feels the months trudging past and wonders how many are left to go.
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If only this could have been funnier, laced with the wink-wink of a Christopher Guest mockumentary or the sly and very human ironies of Michael Moore, but Noujaim's camera simply follows her friends through their mostly sterile environments, the soundtrack gets a little funky, and that's pretty much it. Surely there was plenty of drama for the subjects themselves--as when they struggle to buy out a vestigial partner ("I'll squish him!" explains Tuzman)--but to the audience everyone looks like extras from Wall Street or Boiler Room who have spent a long season aboard Das Boot. Their forced determination prompts accidental chuckles.
Thankfully, there are a couple of exceptions. Early on, captions suggest to us our inalienable rights, which include being allowed to attend a town meeting...in our underwear (i.e., virtually). Later, a partner makes light of Tuzman's vocabulary ("Query us as to whether Kaleil will say heuristic again!"), bringing the biggest smile of the show. Otherwise, the attempts at human comedy largely fizzle, focusing on Herman's compulsion to lend symmetry to his young daughter's hair, or Tuzman struggling with his lukewarm girlfriend's need to acquire a dog as a surrogate child. Tee hee.
Under the guidance of documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (one of the several directors of Monterey Pop) and, seemingly, the whole Pennebaker clan, Startup.com has garnered a strong early buzz. Fans of Pennebaker's work should take note, however: This piece (co-directed by his wife, Hegedus) is truly a special-interest outing. Those interested in the abrupt rise and fall of Internet commerce may recognize familiar themes and even draw comfort from the story arc, but for a general audience the entertainment factor is quite low. The project may best serve us not on the screen but in a time capsule. Without taking too many potshots, this is not due to the directors nor their technique but to the limited appeal of the subjects themselves. We get to watch Tuzman wander around in his underwear, work out at the gym, pray and freak out about everything in his life. Then we get to watch him turn a cold shoulder on his overworked friend, who offers so little resistance we wonder why he got into business in the first place.
It's no secret that the partners' attempt to form a multibillion-dollar company failed, but this movie lacks a sense of anything but impending disaster from the start. We know they'll have dodgy meetings, we know they'll face staunch competition, we know they'll kvetch at each other about respecting authority, and--on cue--they do. It all comes together when Tuzman admits, "I'm getting tired of this shit!" Bingo, dude.