directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim runs June 22-July 5 at Egyptian
FIRST CAME THE Internet bubble. Now comes the cultural mop-up. Startup.com is the latest in a series of movies, books, and theater pieces to examine that brief maniacal period when all commerce, and all life, was supposedly moving onto the Net. In the midst of the madness, documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (The War Room) went looking for a subject, and they found it in an unlikely pair of 20-something Ivy League pals: Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, an exotically ethnic, beguiling smoothie; and Tom Herman, an unglamorous suburban nerd. In early '99, Tom and Kaleil dream up an all-purpose gateway to local government called govWorks.com. "Parking tickets in New York City alone are a $5 million market!" they exclaim to investors (who eventually pour $60 million onto the bonfire). "It's the largest uncharted territory on the Net!"
Thanks in part to co-director Jehane Noujaim's friendship with Kaleil (they were roommates at the time), the filmmakers are allowed some intimate access while the entrepreneurial odd couple travels a now-familiar circuit: venture capital pitches; manic, last-minute site testing; hype; launch; crisis and crash. But while a few scenes get at the late '90s zeitgeist (as when the founders share a laugh over the VCs' favorite word, "heuristic"), Startup.com is actually pretty generic as a business chronicle. Too much of the film is given over to guys yelling into their cell phones about money—watchable enough, but not very enlightening. Another new documentary called e-Dreams—which also just screened at SIFF—captures the distinctive giddiness of the dot-com moment far better. (Its subject? Kozmo.com. Perfect.)
By comparison, Startup.com has less to reveal about the Internet era than about the peculiarly enduring nature of the movie's central friendship. As Tom and Kaleil try to be co-CEOs in a grown-up capitalist world, their affection has a touching resilience that stands in unspoken contrast to the ruthlessness they otherwise exhibit. Their complementary skills serve them well in the good times (the company grows to 250 employees and leases office space in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood), then their relationship reaches its breaking point when govWorks hits the skids in late 2000 and Kaleil makes a decisive play for sole company leadership. Still, perhaps like all such "big swinging dicks" (to use a term from the last go-go era), the two remain boys at heart, not men, as Kaleil's girlfriend rightly observes. In the end, greedy and shallow as they are, they seem, despite themselves, to have a bond that the adult world will never touch.