Friday February 18, 2000
Arthur Miller had made the definitive statement with "Death of a Salesman" in 1949, but then came David Mamet with "Glengarry Glen Ross" to show that there was plenty of wear left in those old shoes.
Oliver Stone added a very-'80s twist with "Wall Street," dressing up his ruminations on fathers, sons and money in thousand-dollar suits and situating them in the high-pressure world of stock trading.
Now comes "Boiler Room," and like a coat of many colors stitched from secondhand cloth, the movie draws from the works that preceded it, then takes to the street with a too-cool hip-hop strut. The result isn't pretty--some colors clash and the design could use some work. From a distance, though, it's fly.
The search for life's meaning in a world that measures success only through money is a perennial and always timely theme. And first-time writer-director Ben Younger's depiction of an amoral Wall Street subculture where young blue-collar men become millionaires overnight is often quite intriguing.
Giovanni Ribisi plays Seth, a college dropout driven to get rich quick by greed and a misguided desire to please his dad. His stern, demanding father is a judge, which makes you wonder why Seth thinks breaking the law will win his love. But after first running an illegal casino out of his home, he follows the smell of money to the testosterone-fueled war zone of a sleazy brokerage firm.
"The white boy's way of slinging crack rock" is how he describes it in voice-over. The film paints the traders as a sort of upwardly mobile street gang. They're hoodlums in tailored suits, snorting coke, starting fights, getting rich on other people's misery. They talk unsuspecting investors into putting their money into bogus stocks. Then, in a complicated scam, they leave the buyers high and dry.
When it's introducing us to this world and its coldhearted characters, the movie is nothing less than compelling. But as soon as Younger tries to spin all of this into a story, he goes astray. There are too many subplots, for one thing, and they nearly all are peopled by ciphers.
Then there's Seth's budding love affair with Abby, the firm's good-hearted but compromised black secretary. With a white actress as Abby, the role would've floated away--it's that negligible. But casting Nia Long adds layers of implication and shading.
This workplace is rife with animosity and name-calling. Jews bait Italians. Italians slander Jews. And everyone slurs black people who, with the exception of pretty Abby, can't even get through the door. Before meeting Seth, she was sleeping with one of the bigoted senior brokers. Her race is only touched upon lightly, but because she's African American, her interactions with all the other characters are electric.
Ribisi carries the film quite nicely. He is an intense, brooding presence. With his sad, droopy eyes and pale skin, and hair slicked back like Gordon Gekko's, he comes to resemble a vampire over the course of the movie. He's playing a man who sucks others dry, but Ribisi makes us care about Seth's struggles with his conscience.
The way this movie deliberately evokes memories of "Wall Street" and "Glengarry Glen Ross" invites the audience to make comparisons. Ben Affleck plays a small role that is clearly modeled on the tough, arrogant Alex Baldwin character in "Glengarry." And "Boiler Room" tips its hat to "Wall Street" with a funny scene in which the brokers watch the older film on TV, speaking the lines along with the characters. This doesn't work in its favor. Mamet's play and the 1992 movie made from it are perhaps the most trenchant handling of these themes since "Salesman."
And "Wall Street," a schematic and overly didactic movie, nevertheless operates on several levels in a way that is beyond Younger's reach. In a scene in "Wall Street," for example, Charlie Sheen's broker challenges his father on a Manhattan sidewalk. They talk about the fate of an airline where the father works. But the fight also registers both as a turning point in their relationship and a philosophical debate about values and the American economy.
"Boiler Room" never achieves that sort of synthesis. It tries to make larger points, but it trips over itself just trying to make the small ones.
Its corresponding scene strains mightily to be significant on just a father-son level, and it falters. Ribisi gets whipped into such a lather that he lapses into a bad Marlon Brando imitation--he all but sobs, "I cudda been a contenduh."
It is perhaps a sign of changing times that in Miller's play, Willy Loman is grappling with the meaninglessness of his life and the lies he's had to tell himself to make it through the day. In "Boiler Room," the stakes aren't that high. Ribisi's Seth Davis just wants his dad to love him. He's a scared little boy in fancy clothes. A simple pat on the head and none of this strum und drang would've been necessary.
Boiler Room, 2000. MPAA Rated: R for strong language and some drug content. A New Line Cinema presentation of a Team Todd production. Director and Screenplay Ben Younger. Producers Suzanne Todd and Jennifer Todd. Executive Producers Claire Rudnick Polstein and Richard Brener. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak. Production Designer Anne Stuhler. Editor Chris Peppe. Music The Angel. Music Supervisor Dana Sano. Costume Designer Julia Caston. Running Time: 2 hours. Giovanni Ribisi as Seth. Vin Diesel as Chris. Nia Long as Abby. Nicky Katt as Greg. Scott Caan as Richie. Ron Rifkin as Seth's Father. Ben Affleck as Jim Young.