Step One: Go shopping for groceries at your favorite supermarket.
Step Two: When the smiling employee asks you whether you prefer paper or plastic, choose paper.
Step Three: Seek out the young actor known as Ryan Phillippe, and -- laying out a trail of mediocre screenplays -- lure him into the paper bag.
Step Four: Get railroaded by friends into seeing Antitrust.
Step Five: Wager against said friends that said Phillippe cannot act his way out of said bag before the end credits roll.
Step Six: Collect your money and hit the town!
Oh, if only it were that easy. Actually, it's not as if Peter Howitt's film has nothing to recommend it; the project is timely and slick, featuring amusingly obnoxious placement of post-grunge distortion anthems, and it offers up the ever dependable Tim Robbins doing a particularly unsettling (if also terribly obvious) Bill Gates impersonation. Love him or loathe him, Howitt certainly knows how to please a crowd, as he illustrated with the massively successful Sliding Doors, and here it seems he couldn't miss, helming a busy script by Howard Franklin (Someone to Watch Over Me, the adaptation of The Name of the Rose). But just as directors and editors learn to compress time -- slicing out less relevant segments of a sequence to keep the pace from lagging -- Howitt and Franklin have opted, unwisely, to excise much common sense from their tale.
This compression of logic -- coupled with two hours of ham-fisted delivery -- guarantees that Antitrust won't jangle your nerves, but will intermittently split your sides with laughter.
For those who missed previous studies of Bill Gates as icon in Martyn Burke's TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley (with Anthony Michael Hall as the young dictator), or James D. Stern's It's the Rage (with Gary Sinise, like Robbins, as a deranged knockoff), here is an even more direct -- possibly even jealous -- attack on the big cheese of Microsoft. Supermogul Gary Winston (Robbins) is the devil in Mr. Rogers' clothing, which we know going in, as illustrated by his ominous gaze on the poster art, beneath the slyly marketed bosoms of Rachael Leigh Cook (from the Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle She's All That) and Claire Forlani (from the Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle Boys and Girls). But for brilliant young programmers, freshly graduated from Stanford and rising quickly via start-ups created, literally, in their garages, Winston represents as much attraction as repulsion.
Although Antitrust would have been much more interesting if focused upon the "open share" credo of hip Teddy Chin (bright newcomer Yee Jee Tso), Franklin instead saddles us with Milo Hoffman (Phillippe), who -- unlike his best friend -- cannot resist the allure of Winston's magic campus in the Pacific Northwest. Bequeathing to the woefully expendable Teddy all his charisma, the silicon geek packs up with his overtly artsy girlfriend, Alice Poulson (Forlani), and succumbs to his dreams of becoming a part of technological history.
Before his immersion in Winston's regime, however, he is visited by Lyle Barton (Richard Roundtree) of the Department of Justice, who offers him "$42,000 a year . . . and a Buick" if he'll join the officer's crusade against the dubious Winston. Of course, Milo declines.
If Winston's headquarters (called N.U.R.V., for Never Underestimate Radical Vision) is the chocolate factory, with the CEO as the spry and insane Willie Wonka, then Barton is definitely the story's enigmatic Slugworth. Soon enough, along with Charlie . . . er . . . Milo . . . we are introduced to a slew of Oompa-Loompas, who speak in a mysterious tongue about codes and mainframes and graphics generators. Foremost among these is quirky Lisa Calighan (Cook), who immediately takes a shine to the zealous yet boring Milo. Together, guided by Winston's lethal pep talks (basically a whole lot of binary malarkey about being either a "1" or a "0" in life), the team members put their best efforts toward meeting the deadline for SYNAPSE, a unifying, satellite-controlled communications system that will link all digital media around the globe.
It comes as no surprise, of course, that the childlike Winston plays dirty pool, stealing ideas for personal gain (and supposed "philanthropy") like a modern-day Edison or the head honchos of Hollywood, and when the thievery hits home for Milo, the movie shifts into paranoid thriller mode, something like Marathon Brat. This is fine, except that it takes a solid hour to reach the movie's first enormous belly laugh -- a moment of "terror" centered around one of the funniest dolly-counter zooms in cinematic history. (For those outside the know, this is the generally disturbing camera trick in which the actor's face and the background shift perspective to illustrate alarm, as when Roy Scheider looks up from the beach to the horror offshore in Jaws.) Once it's clear that this stuff is funny -- the henchmen who spray-paint racist warnings after they murder their quarry, the clearly labeled databanks of employees' vulnerabilities (on video!) hidden practically in plain sight -- Antitrust becomes a lot more enjoyable, almost a bona fide comedy. By taking itself so gosh-darned seriously, it guarantees chuckles aplenty.
With very few exceptions, performances are all as credible as they can be, given the preposterous nature of the material as drawn. Cook and Forlani do a superb job of keeping Milo -- and us -- guessing about their potentially cruel intentions, and Roundtree is perfectly unsettling in his small role. Robbins is a treat, crunching potato chips and mumbling about toy train sets while attempting to take over the world, and the aforementioned Tso -- who only recently entered features in 1998 with Past Perfect -- could do with chunkier roles in the future.
Strangely, the sourest notes come from Phillippe, whose presence on the big screen is still a mystery after such bad-boy trifles as The Way of the Gun and Nowhere. For all the yuks, however, it's pretty easy to forgive him, especially when he openly admits, "I don't know what I'm saying! All I know is all these ideas keep flying in!"