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The Traveling Salesman (2012)

A Review

The Traveling Salesman (2012) is a tough sell. Unapologetically, it promises audiences two hours of mathematicians arguing. As we saw with Pi (1998) and Good Will Hunting (1997) there are ways telling moving (and very different) stories against a backdrop of algorithms. Math doesn't have to be boring. But this movie isn't about that quest; we only join our geniuses at the end of their struggle. All that is left is negotiation on what it means. And for a group of (supposedly) bright people we are treated to dim, slowly unwinding exposition.

~ spoilers below ~

The film is the immediate aftermath of four individuals who have solved the P versus NP problem. The movie stumbles out of the gate by not establishing why this is a big deal. Undefined, the subsequent tension and emotional outbursts are confusing. Twelve Angry Men (1957), also takes place on single set but its dramatic tension grows from a man's life being at stake. By the time the Traveling Salesman pounds the table over China and national security and banking and everything we're wondering why the first hour was even necessary.

Much like the failed Limitless (2011) we are told these people are geniuses without ever being shown works of genius. We are told there are ramifications for not going along with the government without being shown (except in one odd, insomnia-fueled dream sequence?) . At the 11th hour we are told that the protagonist has a McGuffin that resets the negotiation power dynamic. And, from that, we do see some interpersonal sparks fly. But it is too little, too late.

If I were to redo this movie I'd start with clearly stating the government's ultimatum upfront: either unanimously sign over the research for the supplied terms or face treason charges. Left alone, we have better characterization as each actor presents why they would want to take the deal - maybe it is to pay for a sick relative's care. Maybe they want to sign out of fear. Maybe one wants their name on it out of pride. With the human element properly established we now introduce their foil: the mathematician of integrity who, for the audience, clarifies what their breakthrough means. We see well-reasoned point and counter-point with just enough humor to break the monotony. And then, just as we think we're arriving at consensus, we can call into question the integrity of our white night.

When you start casually dropping references to the Manhattan Project and Von Neumann you set expectations. Unfortunately, it is not enough to just tell people you're a smart movie. You have to show them.

Seen On: Amazon Prime Streaming Video