Packing Heat

Boiler Room is the boom era's gangster flick

 Who wants to be a millionaire? is shaping up to be the rhetorical question of our times, and not only because a third-rate talk-show host has turned it into a means to make his own mint. The bullish cybermarket has apparently made it possible for any Seattle slacker with a Web site to post big numbers, while the corporate envy of blue-collar twentysomething men on Long Island has given rise to the phenomenon of securities-fraud sweatshops known as "boiler rooms"--about which there's now a movie, whose 27-year-old director would obviously like to make a million as well. The press kit for Boiler Room drops the astonishing statistic that "one out of every 36 working Americans is in the millionaire category"--which, if it were true, would suggest that Regis Philbin's hit game show offers not a fantasy of American success so much as a representative sample of it. Be that as it may, at least until the bottom falls out of the boom, it's left to the big screen to reveal the dark side of new-millennium millionairedom.

Roughly as the gangster film was to the prohibition era, Boiler Room is to the culture of unlimited entitlement. It even deploys the same rise-and-fall story: Greedy kid without a conscience proves himself to the bad element, makes a killing, starts dating the boss's girl, and eventually gets what's coming to him. In the James Cagney role, Giovanni Ribisi lets us know that his Long Island hustler isn't exactly the brightest bulb on the tree: Indeed, this puffy-faced materialist has a habit of concentrating with his mouth open, nasally paraphrasing the Notorious B.I.G. the way others would quote Keats. "Stock brokering," Ribisi's 19-year-old Seth Davis mumbles in voiceover, "is the white-boy way of slingin' crack rock." Thus, while writer-director Ben Younger contrives the visual equivalent of DJ scratching with his gratuitous stutter-step edit style (the white-boy way of makin' a hood movie?), our college-dropout antihero graduates from running a casino out of his apartment to joining the hallowed fraternity of J.T. Marlin--a boiler-room brokerage firm with a sports bar's name, where dozens of testosterone-fueled "stock jocks" make high-pressure cold-call sales of bogus assets to impressionable clients in, among other places, the Midwest.

Au courant as it might appear to us Middle Americans, Boiler Room actually comes a good five years after meat salesman-turned-brat-pack-broker Jordan Belfort took his notorious Long Island "firm" Stratton Oakmont to the top--and its narrative conventions are much older still. But what makes the movie work is its timely generational and subcultural specificity. No recent film besides Fight Club has so vividly rendered the raging desire of young white guys to bond over their shared addiction to speed, violence, shit-talking, and immoral one-upmanship, and, if anything, Boiler Room is even more pointed about the fundamental emptiness of such pursuits. One of the movie's key scenes has Seth attending a party at another J.T. Marlin employee's unfurnished mansion, where the young players watch Wall Street and take turns reciting its dialogue. Indeed, credit for Boiler Room's strong resemblance to Oliver Stone's late-Eighties waffle over the "greed is good" ethic owes more to the plausibility of this kind of icon-worship than the derivativeness of the script itself. (Credit as well the talented brat-pack ensemble playing Marlin's sharks--especially the glowering Nicky Katt and the casually smoldering Vin Diesel.)

Who wants to be a millionaire: The brat pack of Ben Younger's Boiler Room
Who wants to be a millionaire: The brat pack of Ben Younger's Boiler Room

Otherwise, Younger--who has likened his own boiler-room tenure seven years ago to attending "a fascist youth rally"--succeeds in expanding his focus beyond the millionaire frat house. Seth's desperation to win the approval of his New York judge father (Ron Rifkin) may be a horrible cliché, but when the character breaks into a pathetic crying fit near the end (the brilliant Ribisi seeming to channel his own childhood), it's clear that the boiler room is merely an extension of the sandbox. And Younger's surprising attention to one of the broker's victims--a clock-punching "investor" (played by Whit Stillman habitué Taylor Nichols) who's left shaking at his desk before a framed photo of his wife and kids--turns the film into a metaphor for an even larger playground.

Per the gangster film's requisite sense of punishment, the stock jocks suffer their own hostile takeover in the final reel, although it's no happy ending. What corrupts isn't the boiler room, but the steaming power plant known as America.

 

Boiler Room starts Friday at area theaters.

 
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