The Boiler Room and Other Telephone Sales Scams (1998), Robert Joseph Stevenson
It’s often said that there are only seven (five, twelve – take your pick) stories in the world, the rest are all variations on a theme. The film industry has extended the adage a step further through the use of sequels, prequels, and what might be called "spin" movies – take an existing story and give it a twist. Thus, Speed (bus blows up if it slows below 50 mph) begets Chill Factor (chemical weapon blows up if it gets warmer than 50 degrees). This cut-and-paste method of filmmaking usually results in something less than art. Boiler Room is the debut effort of writer/director Ben Younger and proves to be a welcome exception. Part Wall Street, part Glengarry Glen Ross, with the demographics cranked down a few notches to aim it squarely at Gen-Xers, it’s an entertaining and high-energy inside look at twentysomethings on the financial prowl in an environment where the only mantra is greed.
Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi, Medic Wade in Saving Private Ryan) is a 19-year-old college dropout, running a blackjack casino out of his Queens apartment. Seth isn’t particularly enamored of his situation ("I don’t believe in destiny. I believe in the odds") even with the steady income. Pressure from his distant and disapproving father, a federal judge, leads him to listen when a long-time customer clues him into a new and bigger operation. It’s J. T. Marlin Securities ("We’re not selling stock, we’re selling dreams") – where the average age is under 25, the pressure is high, and so are the commission checks.
Seth signs up for Marlin’s broker training program and is soon under the tutelage of Chris (Vin Diesel, Pitch Black) and Greg (Nicky Katt, The Limey). Chris is a take-no-prisoners juggernaut, Greg more a policies-and-procedures type, but Seth likes what he sees – they’re both under 30 and driving Ferraris. Learning the business primarily consists of pressuring unsophisticated investors with strident cold calls until they succumb. And soon it’s apparent that some things don’t quite fit. The firm’s offices are hidden out on Long Island, far from the financial district. Abby, the company secretary (Nia Long, Boys in the Hood) makes $80,000. The more Seth learns the more his suspicions are raised.
Writer/director Younger does a fine job of depicting details and moving the story along at a frenetic pace, so that the audience gets a good feel for a broker’s grinding life and the kinds of stress they endure. The dialog is intense, smart, and surly – just how we’d expect conversations to be in such a pressure cooker. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak (Desert Blue) uses fluorescent lighting and hand-held camera shots to create an effective hamster-wheel atmosphere of frenzied desperation and claustrophobia.
The acting is uniformly good, with an especially strong set of supporting performances from Diesel, Katt and Long. Ben Affleck shows up in three scenes as Marlin’s recruiting honcho and makes his limited screen time memorable. Characterizations are well drawn – no stereotypes here – especially in the romance between Abby and Seth. The fact that they’re of different races is never an issue. It’s refreshing that there’s no big Confronting Our Color scene, they’re just two people gradually and gently falling in love. Ribisi is especially solid. He shows the transition from neophyte to callous pro with elan – there’s a great scene where he gets a call from a newspaper salesperson and critiques the poor guy’s pitch. By the end of the film you can see that the work has taken a toll – his face looks like the underbelly of a tadpole, pale and clammy, his eyes blankly sunken.
A couple of aspects don’t work – some psychobabble explaining why Seth’s Dad is such a mean son of a bitch and a subplot about a novice investor who risks $50,000 he and his wife had saved for a new house. But Boiler Room deserves credit for taking a very fresh look at some well-worn themes, showing a world where money rules and the good guys not only finish last, they get eaten alive.
– Bob Aulert