If “The Wolf of Wall Street” took flak in some quarters for complicitly reveling in the glossy moral bankruptcy of its otherwise loaded brokers, the same accusation is unlikely to be leveled against “Equity.” Meera Menon’s refreshingly female-skewed financial thriller proves that the women of Wall Street can be just as cold-heartedly corrupt as the boys, but most viewers won’t be remotely seduced by the pitiless pressure-cooker environment its drawn-faced characters inhabit. Yet while the severity of the film’s environment convinces, the specifics of Amy Fox’s screenplay — tangled up in tech IPOs, post-Snowden security paranoia and venal investment banking practice — are less consistently persuasive. Snapped up by Sony Classics prior to its Sundance premiere, Menon’s film has a strong marketing hook in its more-novel-than-it-should-be gender purview; it may, however, find VOD a more bullish market.
Short of getting Leonardo DiCaprio to provide side commentary from a bubble bath, “Equity” could hardly fashion itself more conscientiously as the antidote to a subgenre of film that, in line with the lopsided corporate realm it depicts, is dominated by aggressively male power structures. As storytelling, it’s a stringently all-business affair, with scant time for the jocular frivolities of “The Big Short” or the aforementioned “Wolf”; it scores a solitary belly-laugh with its protagonist’s power-tripping freakout over the amount of chocolate in a cookie she’s served. (“Three motherf—ing chips!” she yells at a bewildered male underling; a meme-ready moment, should the film take hold with an audience.) “Equity’s” relative sternness of tone hardly feels accidental, given its portrayal of a professional landscape where women have to labor strenuously to convince male colleagues and clients of their seriousness.
Press materials boast that Menon has made “the first female-driven Wall Street movie,” a claim that may be countered by certain fans of Mike Nichols’ “Working Girl” — though either way, “Equity” is light years removed from the milder-mannered, male-conceived wish fulfillment of that workplace comedy. In most respects, at least: The proverbial glass ceiling in “Equity” doesn’t appear to be positioned any higher than it was in 1988, as high-flying investment banker Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) is denied a global position by her male superior on the basis of a single underperforming IPO in her otherwise formidable portfolio. “This is not your year,” he tells Naomi with condescending cheer; her face suggests it’s not the first year she’s heard this. In turn, Naomi’s frustrated deputy Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, one of the film’s producers) is denied a promotion for the second year running: The ladder of opportunity for women in this sector, unsurprisingly, is a narrow one.
Undaunted, Naomi turns to her next IPO coup, setting her sights on cocky British tech entrepreneur Ed (Samuel Roukin) and his buzzy new elite social network (or, as their marketing has it, “privacy company”) Cachet. Negotiations go well, and Naomi duly reels them in, though celebrations are short-lived: Whispered rumors of security breaches are spread by unidentified business rivals, seeking to devalue Cachet’s stock. The further Naomi unpicks the knot, the clearer it becomes that no one is to be trusted in either her professional or personal circles — scarcely differentiated as they are.
Further tightening the screws on the situation, meanwhile, is the sharp scrutiny of Samantha (Alysia Reiner, another producer), an estranged friend now working as a prosecutor for the U.S. attorney’s office. A lesbian with a knack for seducing incendiary information out of easily flattered finance bros, she may be the most powerful player in the whole sordid game. One of the most fascinating avenues of investigation in Fox’s script is the double-edged sword of sexuality for women in finance: As presented here, it’s a weapon that can maneuver them into positions of greater advantage, only to be swiftly used against them by misogynistic gatekeepers. Perceptive as its personal politics often are, however, “Equity” can feel artificial and hastily sketched on the business front — the MacGuffin that is Cachet, especially, reads as a screenwriter’s faintly dated conceit.
Finally given a film role that capitalizes on the hotwired intensity she demonstrated to Emmy-winning effect in TV’s “Breaking Bad,” Anna Gunn makes for a commanding lead, fearsomely seething at a range of volumes from one scene to the next. The lesser-known supporting cast serves the material with appropriately steely commitment, with Reiner a standout as the most sympathetic of the film’s multiple anti-heroines, if only by a fine margin: “Equity” is not a film, it should be said, that invites auds to root for anyone in particular.
Technically, the pic is both proficient and unlovely — which, given the necessarily ugly nature of the material, seems to be a conscious call on Menon’s part. The oily-to-the-touch finish of Eric Lin’s cinematography leaves all onscreen participants looking a little more sweatily worse for wear, though the film could do with fewer thematically pointed extreme angles. Editor Andrew Hafitz keeps the proceedings moving at a suitably businesslike clip, while production designer Diane Lederman has a witty awareness of the insecure machismo that infuses even the decor of Wall Street heavies: a blend of too-heavy timber, native artifacts from unvisited isles, and shade upon shade of executive taupe.