From Schlubs to Sharks

Boiler Room

Twenty-seven-year-old Ben Younger delivers the message of his first feature, Boiler Room, with all the subtlety of a car bomb. To wit: Greed is alive and well in the new century, fueled by the material dreams of a generation bent on instant gratification and the distorted expectations of neophyte investors dazzled by a Dow Jones that's flown off the charts. Younger's loudmouthed antiheroes, crooked young stockbrokers who force worthless issues on the unwary, have the swagger of street thugs and the conscience of snakes. They let nothing get in the way of what they want -- to get rich quick.

Here, then, is another instance of the ruthlessly capitalistic movie industry taking a shot at the excesses of capitalism -- an act not without its ironies. In fact the callow hustlers in Boiler Room even try to one-up the nastiness of other business-world exposés: They delight in quoting the wisdom of Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko line for line, and they drag up a commandment lifted straight out of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross: "ABC -- Always Be Closing."

Younger, a streetwise Brooklynite who studied political science at New York's City University, clearly understands the hyperactive toughs his young cast portrays so vividly here -- multiethnic, working-class boys with maybe a sniff of college, driven by testosterone and dreams of putting a yellow Ferrari in the driveway. These are not polished Ivy Leaguers who go to work for blue-chip firms like J.P. Morgan or Goldman-Sachs; they are raw material recruited by "chop shops" like the movie's fictional JT Marlin. Located not on Wall Street but in an industrial park out in eastern Long Island, Marlin specializes in the hard sell and the fast buck, generating fat commissions for its frenzied brokers while trying to stay a step ahead of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Here the high-pressure phone call and the bold-faced lie have been raised to high art (recall Jack Lemmon in Glengarry), while the implications of swindling the public have been conveniently set aside. In other words, behold capitalism bloody in fang and claw.

Into this overheated jungle, Younger drops a 19-year-old college dropout named Seth Davis (Saving Private Ryan's Giovanni Ribisi), whose previous business experience consists of running an illegal blackjack game in his Queens apartment. Smart but insecure (his father, a New York judge, disapproves of him), this baby-faced striver makes for a quick study. "Microsoft has millionaire secretaries," Seth muses in a voice-over. "You see shit like that, and it plants seeds." Before long he's JT Marlin's top trainee. He develops his own repertoire of telephone ensnarements, bonds with the boys at work, and upgrades his wardrobe -- not unlike the hotshot Charlie Sheen played in Wall Street. Inevitably Seth, too, sells his soul. Puffed up with crude ambition, he pressures a struggling family man named Harry Reynard (Taylor Nichols) into dumping his life savings into a medical stock that's bound for oblivion. To his credit, Seth doesn't yet know the whole story on the stock and on JT Marlin's scams, but he's still guilty as sin: He's been seduced by visions of instant wealth, and he's turned himself into an accomplished liar. Eventually somebody will have to pay the piper. Probably a lot of people will.

While struggling to move up from movie grip to writer-director, Younger was recruited by a boiler-room operation like JT Marlin. He didn't take the job, but he did take notes. For two years, he says, he researched the secret life of the chop shop boys -- their fraternal rituals, hyperaggression, and hard-drinking social lives. He learned that fly-by-night brokers never "pitch the bitch" (try to sell stock to women), that their training sessions are "like Hitler Youth rallies," that every young hopeful who can knot his tie clearly expects to make his first million inside of three years. Hard drivers like Seth, he learned, make as many as 700 cold calls a day, sometimes wielding a telephone in each hand.

The first-time director has poured this inside info into his characters with great skill. Ribisi's Seth transforms himself before our eyes from a schlub into a shark, but his fellow travelers are just as compelling. As his work buddy Chris, big, meaty Vin Diesel (another minor player in Private Ryan) is in-your-face Italian-American aggression personified, while Nicky Katt's smoothly coifed Greg, a guy who already has his Ferrari, is the picture of preening self-satisfaction. Ben Affleck, late of Dogma, gets what Glengarry fans will see as the Alec Baldwin call: He's the head recruiter and pitiless shaper of young minds at JT Marlin -- part father, part fascist.

Aside from a gift for building characters, Younger clearly has a good eye for details like the pecking order of urban appearance: He knows an underling's suit from a sharpie's suit, a trainee's haircut from that of a boss. But he has an even better ear. The crackling dialogue in Boiler Room captures the qualities of desire ("What I wanted to do, the only thing, was to get in!"), the vanities behind ethnic friction in big cities like New York, the secret linguistic codes that separate winners from losers in a dog-eat-dog world. This beautifully written screenplay bodes well for Younger's future in movies -- despite his yielding here to at least one major movie convention. For dramatic purposes young Seth doesn't really need a girlfriend, but Younger provides one (Nia Long's Abby, who is JT Marlin's $80,000-a-year secretary) so the film won't look quite so unisex.

Is Boiler Room derivative? Yeah, a little bit. The guys we meet here are the Sons of Gekko, and with a few more years of disappointments on them, they would feel right at home in Mamet's tattered real-estate office. Is the movie already dated? Oddly, it is. The SEC says it's redoubling its efforts to shut down sleazy brokerages, but online stock trading -- every investor his or her own broker -- has probably taken a bigger bite out of such operations. Not only that, even old Uncle Herb in Des Moines has learned the ropes: After four or five years playing the markets, he can compute a price-earnings ratio and properly read a prospectus.

Despite its faults Boiler Room deserves a careful viewing. As the expression of a certain moment in American social history -- drenched in envy, devoid of moral stricture, driven by youthful arrogance -- this pitch-perfect, richly detailed portrait of raw greed works very well, thank you.

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