If you want to know the kind of corrupt American values that Leonardo DiCaprio’s all-American boy in The Beach was trying to escape by backpacking in Southeast Asia, check out Boiler Room. One look at the bull pit into which the New York brokerage firm of J.T. Marlin has jammed its Gen X stock jocks – hired to get on the phone and bilk unsuspecting customers out of their money – and you’d run, too. Or maybe not.
That’s the point of this toxic spellbinder from first-time writer-director Ben Younger, 27, who almost got tempted into a boiler room himself a few years back. For working the phones eighteen hours a day, bossman Michael (Tom Everett Scott as a wolf in preppy clothing) can make you a millionaire. And if you’re wasted after a year or two, quit, hit the beach and enjoy the spoils.
Seth Davis, the nineteen-year-old college dropout played by Giovanni Ribisi, certainly finds the boiler room seductive. The gambling operation he runs out of his house in Queens is strictly small-time and a major embarrassment to his father (Ron Rifkin), a judge. No wonder the firm’s head recruiter, Jim Young (a never-better Ben Affleck), sucks Seth in so easily. “People will tell you that money can’t buy happiness,” says Jim. “Well, look at this fucking smile on my face.” Affleck takes a supporting role and runs with it; he’s a devil with a blue suit on, using his clothes, his cars and his billfold to advertise quick success. No college degree required. All you need is a talent for hustle.
Affleck is a slick-dick wonder, but he’s no match for the boiler room itself. Younger is dealing with the same theme – greed – as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross did. But the idea of the boiler room as a Y2K gladiator ring for disenfranchised youth provides a provocative new twist. Assembled on the sly in a Long Island town, away from the legit firms on Wall Street, the J.T. Marlin boiler room is a makeshift collection of desks, computers, phones and raging testosterone. It’s here that Seth, and by extension the audience, learns the rules and the terminology of trading. Clients are either pikers (cowardly minor-league investors) or whales (the high-rollers). One misogynist rule holds firm at J.T. Marlin: “Don’t pitch the bitch” – men are easier marks than calculating women.
Seth is a quick study. Before long he’s fielding 700 calls a day and even double-fisting (taking two calls at once). Naturally, he makes enemies, notably his mentor, Greg Feinstein (Nicky Katt), a senior broker who shares Seth’s conservative-Jewish background. Seth has also moved in on Greg’s girl, Abby (the lovely Nia Long), the firm’s receptionist. Conflict ensues when Seth has an attack of conscience about tricking a piker (Taylor Nichols) into investing family savings in a stock he knows is heading south.
Sadly, Boiler Room heads in that same direction when the film starts trading in soap-opera theatrics, such as the contrived romance and the cop-show ending. Ribisi, a solid actor sidetracked by two high-profile fiascos (The Mod Squad, The Other Sister), drifts into mannerism in the angry, teary scenes between Seth and his hard-ass dad. It’s in the heat of stock-trading battle that the film regains ground and Ribisi scores with a performance of quicksilver intelligence. Boiler Room succeeds best when it sticks to the rituals and betrayals of young lions on the prowl. Younger, who worked as a standup comic and a political analyst before turning his keen eye to movies, is a filmmaker to watch.