AntiTrust: Peter Howitt’s Techno Thriller Starring Ryan Philllippe and Tim Robbins

The fast-growing software industry and its dubious “heroes” are ripe subjects for a timely melodrama, or a biting satire, but AntiTrust, Peter Howitt’s wannabe suspense thriller, is a missed opportunity.

Pulpish approach and slick production values can’t camouflage the preposterous plotting and ludicrous dialogue that impair this movie, which represents another failed effort to turn the appealing heartthrob Ryan Phillippe into a bankable Hollywood star.

Dismissive reviews and negative word-of-mouth should translate into a quick wide theatrical playoff, rapidly sending this flick to the video bin where it’s likely to collect dust rather than potential fans.

Peter Howitt, who showed some talent in directing Gwyneth Paltrow in the mildly engaging conceptual romance Sliding Doors, is unable to rise above the obvious, clich-ridden screenplay by Howard Franklin, who previously wrote the shallow romantic thriller, Someone to Watch Over Me, directed by Ridley Scott, and the semi-effective noir The Public Eye, which he also helmed.

It’s one of Hollywood’s visual clichs to impose a pair of glasses on a sexy hunk when they want to deglamorize him. Such was the case of the utterly miscast Matthew McConaughey in Amistad, and such is the case of Phillippe here, as Milo Hoffman, a Stanford University whiz kid. Spending his time in a garage with his pal Teddy Chin (Yee Jee Tso), Milo is a bright, ambitious kid aiming to launch a new kind of software company, based on the democratic philosophy that “human knowledge belongs to the world.”

That is, until Milo is recruited by a charismatic mogul named Gary Winston, broadly played by Tim Robbins as a parody of Bill Gates. Reworking the familiar Faust story, Milo sells himself to the Microsoft devil, the immoral head of the Portland-based NURV (Never Underestimate Radical Vision), who employs the best brains in the country in his effort to launch Synapse, a top-secret project that will revolutionize the global digital future.

Need I tell more about the plot machinations and resolution?

It’s no coincidence that Antitrust resembles The Firm and Enemy of the State (both far better movies), as all of these stories are variations of the conspiracy theory that dominated American life–and some excellent movies–in the early 1970s, during the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal. Mistrust of any kind of authority, in fact of any kind of person, is the essence of this ideology. Indeed, in Antitrust, there are two morally ambiguous ladies: Milo’s girlfriend Alice (Claire Forlani) and his co-worker Lisa (Rachael Leigh Cook).

Unfortunately, AntiTrust is not bad enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure. However, the few viewers who will see the picture might get a kick out of a number of scenes that are unintentionally risible. In one, Milo, trying to get Lisa’s cooperation, resorts to cheap Freudianism by revealing a family scandal from her past; all the characters have chips on their shoulders, disclosed, of course, via digital video onscreen. In another, after establishing that Milo is allergic to sesame seeds, he is subjected to an elegant dinner cooked by Alice, in which the main ingredient may or may not be sesame.

Hopefully, Tim Robbins, ordinarily a reliable, conscientious actor, got paid a lot of money for this silly assignment. As for Phillippe, his Hollywood future will remain cloudy so long as he continues to be cast in movies like Little Boy Blue, 54, and now AntiTrust.

The bottom line: The public is far too sophisticated and cynical to swallow a populist fairy tale in which a kid defeats global monopoly out of his shabby garage.