‘August’: Bubbling Under, By Kurt Loder

Josh Hartnett goes bad in a tough little indie.

“August” is a small movie, to use an often dismissive term. Its objectives are limited (partly by a low budget, no doubt), and its story grows out of its characters. But the picture also provides Josh Hartnett with one of his most interesting roles, and it elicits one of his sharpest performances.

The year is 2001, at the tail-end of the late-’90s dot-com bubble. At a party in a loft office in downtown New York, Tom Sterling (Hartnett) and his brother Josh (Adam Scott) are celebrating the explosive success of their Internet start-up, a company called Land Shark. It’s never clear what this outfit really does, but it’s just gone public and is suddenly worth $387 million — on paper, anyway. Life is real good, and Tom is making plans to lease a corporate jet. (“Bezos has one,” he whines, as if the Amazon mogul were somehow undeserving.)

Fast-forward five months. The bubble is collapsing, and Tom — who’s run through millions of dollars in various unwise ways — suddenly discovers that Land Shark’s stock, like that of many another NASDAQ marvel, is tanking. He swats away all cautionary advice, though. (“That’s so third-quarter-1999,” he barks at a subordinate who’s only trying to help.) Meanwhile, Josh, the actual brains of the operation, is growing worried. Unlike the rootless Tom, he has a wife and child to support. When once-plentiful investment offers start drying up, Tom tries to smooth-talk Josh into fronting a personal loan. Josh is quietly appalled by such intimate manipulation.

The history of the dot-com bubble dictates the trajectory of the story. Finally forced to beg for financing from various reluctant sources, Tom — who’d aspired to become a stock-market shark in his own right — finds himself forced into the orbit of two real sharks (one played by David Bowie, with a chilly sneer), who tell him his stock is worthless, and that while they’re interested in taking over his company for their own purposes, “we’re not interested in you.” In a predictably sentimental ending, Tom tries to repair his relationship with his brother over their favorite pinball machine in a grubby strip club. Can they start over again, strengthened by their miserable business experience? Maybe. Fade out.

Scott and Naomie Harris, who plays Tom’s dubious one-time girlfriend, provide solid, low-key support for Hartnett’s bristling lead performance. His Tom Sterling, swaggering into high-level business meetings in his new-money uniform of T-shirts and jeans, a fake-rebel tattoo engraved on his neck, is an educated fool with an almost-total emotional deficit. Many of his peers will cheer his fall from the financial heights (such as they were), and his ultimate comeuppance is rendered by the director, Austin Chick, with a stark unpleasantness that feels real enough to stir a slight flinch. Hartnett has rarely portrayed such an unsympathetic character (he’s usually utilized for his slightly out-of-focus sweetness), and he’s so good at it, you can’t quite buy his embryonic redemption at the end. Nobody wants an arrogant churl like Tom Sterling around in real life; but it might be interesting if there were a couple more of them on Hartnett’s career horizon.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “August.”

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.