The shadow of “Wall Street” looms large over “Boiler Room,” a contempo reworking of Oliver Stone’s 1987 morality tale. Ben Younger’s critical expose of American corporate ethos, which also echoes David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” begins extremely well as a saga of greed and conspicuous consumption, but gradually loses its bite, turning, just like “Wall Street,” into a simplistic Freudian meller about a son (credibly played by Giovanni Ribisi) eager to prove his worth to his demanding father. Hard on the edges but soft at the center, pic will be dismissed by serious critics as derivative, but glossy veneer and likable ensemble, with a bravura turn from Ben Affleck, should attract young middlebrow audiences, resulting in moderate numbers for the February New Line release.
Pic focuses on a bunch of twentysomething hotshots working for a brokerage firm that promises to turn them into millionaires overnight. Almost every character in Younger’s elegantly staged thriller is borrowed from Stone or Mamet, beginning with Affleck’s Jim Young, essentially the Alec Baldwin role from “Glengarry Glen Ross”: He’s a headhunter who will do anything to lure his boys with promises of overnight success, defined by such goods as large mansions, Ferraris and other luxury toys.
The lingo, also inspired by that of Mamet’s salesmen, is dominated by such concepts as “ABC” (Always be closing). “Boiler Room” is so self-conscious about its origins that it even contains a scene from “Wall Street” — with Younger’s characters able to recite the text.
Nonetheless, on closer inspection there’s something new about Younger’s yarn, which, in its attention to a generation obsessed with speedy wealth, presents an engaging expose of one of America’s most lucrative scams. Reportedly based on research, script treats its heroes as members of a secretive sect or subculture, with distinctive dress code, professional conduct and even leisure activities. That the group is misogynistic goes without saying — one of the sect’s imperatives is “Don’t pitch the bitch,” which translates into “never sell stocks to women.”
Protagonist is Seth Davis (Ribisi, playing the equivalent of the Charlie Sheen role in “Wall Street”), a 19-year-old college dropout whose chief motivation is to earn the respect of his authoritarian father (Ron Rifkin), a judge. After attempting to run an illicit casino out of his Queens apartment, for which he’s reproached by his dad, Seth decides to go legit and join J.T. Marlin, the only brokerage firm that promises him a fast road to the top.
First two reels are excellent in detailing Marlin’s boiler room as the inner sanctum of a fly-by-night firm, where hyper-aggressive young stock jocks get training in peddling their services over the phone. Set in a Long Island enclave, the place resembles a feverish newsroom, always bustling with tension and activity, where ambitious Gen-Xers chase the green at breakneck speed.
Story is told from the p.o.v. of Seth as he tries to acclimate himself to the cliquish boiler room. His circle of comrades includes Chris (Vin Diesel), a millionaire broker with a fast and foul mouth, and Greg (Nicky Katt), an arrogant Jewish broker who serves as Seth’s mentor but later becomes jealous of him. Scheme of Marlin’s boyish leader, Michael (Tom Everett Scott), is exposed by Seth when one evening he unexpectedly returns to his office to retrieve his bag.
As if obligated to acknowledge the existence of women, yarn includes one female figure, Abby (Nia Long), the firm’s receptionist, who soon becomes suspicious of the boys’ scams but remains silent because she needs to support a sick mother. Romantic interludes between Seth and Abby, which feel like throwaway scenes, are among the film’s weakest episodes.
Pic’s second half tosses Seth into a crisis of conscience, precipitating his road to recovery and redemption. Turning point in Seth’s moral journey occurs after a series of frantic phone conversations with Harry (Taylor Nichols), a victim who’s been manipulated into investing his entire savings into dubious, illegal accounts, despite the protests of his more conservative wife.
Story’s first half is absorbing and entertaining due to its darkly farcical tone. Ultimately, tale lends itself more to satire than to a psychological approach. Last reel is particularly disappointing in its naive philosophy, manifest in Younger’s rush to bring the various conflicts to satisfying closure.
Ribisi is well cast as the newcomer whose hunger for fast money belies a deeper need for parental love and acceptance. He is surrounded by an attractive cast.
Younger directs his taut, suspense-laden saga with authority, lending it a stylish veneer, with strong tech contributions from lenser Enrique Chediak, production designer Anne Stuhler and costumer Julia Caston.
Engaging as it is, “Boiler Room” lacks the immediacy of “Wall Street,” whose release benefited from the crash of the 1987 stock market and which epitomized the Reagan years through its big-shot financiers, viewed as masters of the universe. Like Stone’s, Younger’s heroes slick back their hair and sport silk ties and custom-tailored suits, but their mores seem more reflective of a small, marginal subculture than of the zeitgeist.