Any fictional character (or, for that matter, real-life person) who is able to make huge sums of money on the basis of nothing short of a brilliantly cocky self-presentation has an element of interest. So, too, does the universe that spawns these humanoids. August is a peek into both: the dot-com world and its 20-something creators at the turn of the 21st century, just before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The film's title works on two levels: It's the literal time frame in which the story unfolds, and it's also metaphoric (a little heavy-handed, perhaps), evoking the brief period just before it all explosively falls apart.
August recounts the meteoric rise and fall of Tom Sterling (Josh Hartnett), whose Internet startup, Landshark, is a business paradigm for "E. Pure E.," he proclaims to potential investors, employees, and other groupies. "Not 'e-commerce.' Not 'e-business.' Not 'click-and-mortar,' dear God, please not that.... You want 'E.' Pure 'E.' "
It's an impressive bit of gibberish — credit writer Howard A. Rodman — that succeeds in mesmerizing everyone, including Sterling's media acolytes, all of whom have little doubt they're in the presence of entrepreneurial greatness and a visionary of cyberspace whose status is further enhanced by his cool rock-star persona and hedonistic lifestyle. Love his multistoried office digs, loft, and '69 Camaro.
And Hartnett is superb as the fast-talking shell of a man who almost believes his own double-talk, mostly because it convinces others he's selling something of consequence. Adam Scott is too terrific as Sterling's earnest brother, a family man of conscience and the brains behind the startup. The smaller roles are also impressive: Naomie Harris as Sterling's ex-girlfriend who is re-seduced by him and knows better; Robin Tunney and Andre Royo as Sterling's beleaguered colleagues; and Rip Torn as Sterling's disgusted dad who sees through his son's shenanigans. Most notable, however, is David Bowie as an icy corporate raider for whom Sterling is nothing more than a roach waiting to be exterminated.
There is much to admire in this film, and kudos goes to director Austin Chick for making real the glitzy yet ultimately vacuous lifestyle of the super-rich dot-com crowd: They are little more than children, working hard at appearing childlike while gleefully destroying anyone who gets in their way. In many ways August brings to mind Bonfire of the Vanities; Bright Lights, Big City; and Less Than Zero.
Nonetheless, the film can't quite decide what it is: satire or family drama? It certainly ends on an unexpected note of sentiment. The other shortfall is plain old-fashioned lack of plot. The filmmakers would like Tom Sterling to be 2001's Gordon Gekko, without the story-telling power and narrative drive of Wall Street.
Directed by: Austin Chick
Written by: Howard A. Rodman
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Naomie Harris, Adam Scott, Robin Tunney, Andre Royo