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Greed Is So-So

Boiler Room Intermittently Captures the Go-Go '90s

Giovanni Ribisi pursues his target in Boiler Room

By Luisa F. Ribeiro | Posted

The opening shots of Boiler Room set bare, lonely trees against a black sky. The camera pans down to three jiggling bus-loads of what appear to be rowdy frat boys on their way to a kegger. They're not, but these hyped-up kids aren't really much different: They're "boiler room" stock jocks—twentysomething white boys primed to become millionaires overnight by hustling bogus stocks to unsuspecting investors for outrageous commissions.

Intended as a scary inside peek into the back rooms off Wall Street amid the high-flying economic madness of the '90s, Boiler Room hits several racy peaks, but first-time writer/director Ben Younger trips over some novice storytelling blunders.

College dropout Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) runs a successful gambling casino out of his apartment using his student-loan checks and can't understand why his judge daddy (Ron Rifkin, who hung upside down so nicely in L.A. Confidential) isn't popping buttons with pride. Associating big bucks with big achievement (and respect), Seth sits up and takes notice when a buddy introduces him to a smooth broker, Greg (Nicky Katt), who broadly hints at the quick bundle just waiting to be had for someone with plenty of moxie.

Seth gamely attends a mass interview at the youth-run brokerage firm of J.T. Marlin (an outfit so exclusive, Seth dryly notes, that it's more than an hour from Wall Street), where a hard-talking, drill-sergeant-like recruiter (Ben Affleck, proving to have far more versatile acting chops than writing partner Matt Damon) dangles the opulent toys of Easy Street and gives slack-jawed, baby-faced interviewees the ultimate hard-on by promising that those who make the grade will be millionaires in three years.

Becoming the ideal trainee under the mercurial but insecure Greg, Seth learns to pitch dubious stocks to hapless victims and in short order brings home the bacon—impressing the likes of rapid-fire pitchman Chris (Vin Diesel, the voice of The Iron Giant) while also winning the attentions of Greg's former flame, front-office secretary Abbie (Nia Long). Gradually, Seth notices a few inexplicable inconsistencies and, when he begins to question the deep pockets of bulldozing company head Michael (Tom Scott), comes to suspect that all the glitters ain't necessarily gold.

Director Younger (who was recruited himself by a brokerage "boiler room" and spent a year researching the life of "chop-shop" brokers) keeps the pace snappy and hopping through effective if predictable jump cuts, thumping hip-hop, and an ear for the crude locker-room banter of the young stock studs. He also perfectly captures the vapidity of talented if ignorant boy millionaires whose low moral thresholds and need for instant gratification are shaped by movies (Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street are amusingly homaged), and who literally have no idea what to do with their millions after buying the obligatory candy-colored sports car and multiple Mafia-styled suits.

Where Younger stalls is in the sappy and frequently clumsy scenes outside J.T. Marlin's hustle center. Seth's family dynamics are dully stereotyped: a demanding, uncommunicative father and a cloying, spoiling mother. Rifkin plays Marty Davis with singular intensity, yet as written, the character is only a bundle of disdain and unreasonable panicky fears that his son's activities might jeopardize his own career. Seth's doglike determination to win his father's attentions runs on to excess, settling into tiresome been-there, seen-that filler.

Likewise, the awkward relationship built around Seth and Abbie—a character who appears to have been added not only as a token woman in this male milieu, but to add some color to a sea of white—is a strained gimmick that rings unrealistic and hollow. In the boiler room, women are actively loathed—one of the earliest and severest admonitions the trainees learn is "pitch the bitch," which translates to never selling to women, who are viewed by the brokers as undesirable nuisances for their intense concern about their stocks' performance. Thus, Abbie's presence requires explanation that isn't forthcoming. We're offered the notion that she simply wants to mine her own jackpot ("Where else can a secretary make $80,000 a year?" she reasons to Seth), but that doesn't justify why she's chosen a job that would be a pressure-cooker situation for any woman, much less a minority. Long also appears far too sophisticated and elegant for the slight, callow Ribisi, and the chemistry between the two is nil.

But when Younger sticks to the boys-club atmosphere at J.T. Marlin—the furious competition, the pumped-up telephone thrills, and the amazing lack of conscious over swindling people out of their hard-earned money for stocks they never wanted—he's on more solid ground. In those scenes, Boiler Room bursts with frightening accuracy into the soulless, maniacal greed that has lately redefined the American dream as a special sort of nightmare.

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