- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

Hollywood lags in using the rise and fall of Internet service companies as a subject for clever and knowing comic exploitation. Perhaps the annual quota of moronic sex comedies precludes a useful adjustment in screenwriting priorities.
As a result, the timely documentary feature "Startup.com," playing at Visions Cinema, gets a diverting and edifying jump on the mainstream industry while also becoming the first movie to slip "dot-com" into a title.This resourceful feat of opportunism grew out of the friendship between an aspiring filmmaker, Jehane Noujaim, and the movies go-getting protagonist, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, an aspiring billionaire. Both were Harvard grads in their middle 20s sharing an apartment in New York City while Miss Noujaim worked for MTV and Mr. Tuzman for Goldman Sachs. When he decided to leave his day job to devote full time to raising money for an embryonic firm called Public Data Systems, she took advantage of an opportunity to hang around with a video camera and monitor his progress.
A chance meeting brought a seasoned partner into the recording project: Chris Hegedus, associated for the past generation with cinema-verite documentary filmmaker Donn Pennebaker, who also became Miss Noujaims spouse in the course of an extended professional collaboration.
Miss Hegedus, whose lengthy list of credits includes "The War Room," which stuck like glue to James Carville and George Stephanopolous during a crucial stage of the 1992 primary campaign, was interested in the Internet topic. She had been approaching it from a different angle, consulting with investment companies that were financing various start-ups. Seeing instant merit in Miss Noujaims connection with Mr. Tuzman, already a willing camera subject, she joined forces, supervising much of the sound recording while her partner kept focused on the leading man.
The life span of Public Data, which changed its name to GovWorks.com, extended for about two years, but the movie distills ups and downs from approximately May 1999 to December 2000. In that period, an initial investment of $700,000 led to auspicious second rounds of $7 million and $19 million, then a final round of almost $40 million.
At that point, GovWorks was partnered with American Management Systems, Arthur Andersen and Fleet Boston Financial and had about 250 employees in a New York office, busily endeavoring to refine a balky Web site intended to facilitate transactions between municipal agencies and the general public.
Perhaps the most illustrative single example of what the site hoped to achieve as a practical matter was a contract with New York City that allowed car owners to pay parking fines through GovWorks.
The service was dreamed up by a quartet of boyhood and school friends. The principal figures are Mr. Tuzman and Tom Herman, friends from school days in Amherst, N.H. The formers exotic makeup isnt quite clarified in the movie: His father is Colombian, and his mother (she makes a brief appearance) is Jewish American.
The chief salesman and fund-raiser, Mr. Tuzman exudes an extroverted gusto and confidence that contrast vividly and humorously with the owlish and introverted personality of Mr. Herman, evidently the company techie, although he also has an exotic side.
One of the beguiling human-interest sidelights is Mr. Hermans daughter Tia, evidently the offspring of a union with a Jamaican mother who never makes an appearance, even fleeting.
Tia is a photogenic heartbreaker, so easily distressed that you feel an overwhelming impulse to offer reassurance from the audience that all these intrusions on her domestic life are temporary and probably harmless.
As GovWorks becomes a bigger financial proposition, a going concern and then a start-up that suddenly struggles to secure a slice of what was envisioned expansively as a $600 billion market, the Tuzman-Herman friendship proves a casualty. Its not irreparable, because the filmmakers hang around long enough to witness a reconciliation, with the partners once again sharing a common fate as business failures. Yet the impression that personal loyalties and business expediency may not harmonize is illustrated with considerable immediacy and sardonic humor.
Certain coincidences help in a way that might have failed in a fictionalization. The climate of suspicion aroused by an unsolved break-in puts Mr. Herman in an awkward position about leaving the company when he agrees to resign but then remains on his lawyers advice.
This ambivalence prompts his old buddy, Mr. Tuzman, to declare Mr. Herman persona non grata and direct security personnel to evict him. This strong-arming doesnt prevent him from leading an office farewell cheer for good old absent Tom the next morning.
Clearly, the filmmakers are at a disadvantage at some junctures. Evidently barred from board meetings, they cant witness the exchanges that ultimately make Mr. Tuzman an expendable founder.
Thats the sort of thing a fictional movie can correct by going anywhere it wants and inventing all the obligatory scenes as needed. Playful humorists also might take further advantage of such aspects as the Tia factor and the Dora factor.
Dora is one of Mr. Tuzmans erstwhile girlfriends. Although seen infrequently, she is dynamite on camera. She contributes some delightfully scathing commentary on the aspirations of Kaleil and Tom.


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