Goodfellas meets Wall Street indie-style, Boiler Roomtakes us inside a stock-trading chop shop where 22-year-old guys earn millions by conning people into investing in nonexistent companies. It’s a seemingly no-holds-barred depiction of an ugly milieu that’s a decade overdue for exposure on the big screen; and I suspect its biggest fans are going to be young men from legitimate Wall Street firms, who will think themselves honest and virtuous by comparison. But writer-director Ben Younger has set his sights wider. Boiler Room picks away at the money-ruled mentality of the moment, which makes anyone who didn’t seize the opportunity to make big bucks in the ’90s now feel like a fool.
Our guide to this mind-set is Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a Queens College dropout and talented entrepreneur. Seth is running a casino in his Kew Gardens basement when he’s recruited by J.T. Marlin, a small brokerage house located in a Long Island strip mall. Believing that this is a serious career opportunity, one that will legitimize him in the eyes of his disapproving father (Ron Rifkin), Seth plunges in and discovers that he enjoys peddling stocks over the phone, that he gets an adrenaline rush from seducing customers by preying on their fear of missing out and from fulfilling the boiler room’s guiding principle, “Always be closing” (borrowed from Glengarry Glen Ross, a film which, along with Wall Street, is these hotshots’ bible). But unlike his fellow workers, who either don’t want to know or know and don’t care what they’re selling, Seth is curious. He’s also troubled by the pangs of an underdeveloped but active conscience. Still, he’s too preoccupied to notice the feds closing in.
Restless and driven, Boiler Room distributes its energy differently than do the high-testosterone, Scorsese-influenced indies of the past decade. While cinematographer Enrique Chediak doesn’t eschew handheld and Steadicam moves, he doesn’t call attention to them either. Although visually rather static, the film is still quite beautiful in its high-contrast, dark-toned use of color. More cerebral than kinetic, Younger keeps his focus on the actors and on his own punchy, revealing dialogue.
Like Mean Streets and Goodfellas, Boiler Room takes us inside the consciousness and the coded masculine world of a single character. Younger gives Ribisi a star-making role and he more than delivers. Ribisi has a feline body and pale-skinned face that’s at once soft and angular. His most notable feature is a Cupid’s-bow mouth, held slightly agape as if it were sucking in information. He can resemble either Gary Oldman or Christopher Walken, but he has a shy, sly sexuality that’s all his own.
His greatest asset here may be his voice, which makes it seem as if he’s confiding secrets. “The Notorious B.I.G. said it best,” Seth tells us in his opening voice-over. “Either you’ve got a wicked jump shot or you’re slinging crack rock.” His way of slinging crack rock, Seth continues, is to become a stockbroker. There’s a lot at stake in this deceptively casual self-analysis. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the mix of envy and fear in the relationship of the boiler-room white guys to gangsta rap, a relationship that’s never again openly stated but is implied through a terrific wall-to-wall score by The Angel.
The ensemble cast behind Ribisi never makes a misstep, but there are particularly strong performances by Rifkin, Vin Diesel as a senior partner who’s making millions but still lives with his mother, and Nia Long as J.T. Marlin’s executive secretary and only African American employee, who falls for Seth as much as he falls for her.
Although the plotting gets a bit predictable toward the end, the script is intelligent and boldly written throughout. Seth’s colleagues like to put Wall Street on the VCR and parrot the dialogue; their real-life counterparts as well as those who sanctimoniously look down on them may find similarly choice lines in Boiler Room. When Seth makes junior partner, some of the senior partners take him into Manhattan to celebrate. They wind up at the Odeon, Seth’s suggestion no doubt. The gay art-world types at the next table object to the boys’ dick-slinging jokes and loutish behavior, inquiring if it’s their way of making themselves attractive to the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. “They should take all of you and throw you on a fucking island somewhere,” yells one of the boiler-room boys. “Well, I’ve got news,” counters one of the art-world types. “You’re on it.”
Explaining what drove him to get rich quick, Seth cites the example of the former child actor whose price is now $20 million a picture. The Beach is barely a movie, but it does prove that Leonardo DiCaprio suffers the elements in some small way for his money and his art. Why else would he leave the comforts of the Mercer Hotel to run around the jungles of Thailand for six months? But however you look at it, this is an ill-chosen project. Adapted from Alex Garland’s beach-read of a novel, the film plays like a combination of The Blue Lagoon and a video game. In fact, it literally turns into a video game three-quarters through when DiCaprio, all alone in the jungle, must elude a band of dope farmers armed with AK-47s and machetes. The star has a flair for action, but the wrong skin for a beach bunny. Perhaps it was the sunblock in his makeup that causes his face to look so curdled.
The Beach was directed, written, and produced respectively by Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Andrew Macdonald, the team that gave us the overrated Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. Caught between a star and an anxious studio, they opted for making as bland a film as possible. Still, the bummer tone of the novel comes through right up until the last shot, which undermines any meaning the film might have had. The Beach is not a total waste of time thanks to Tilda Swinton’s performance as the mad, power-driven den mother to an international colony of twentysomething travelers. Swinton looks like a scary but gorgeous praying mantis. When she seduces DiCaprio, she really seems to eat him alive.
A husband and wife, refugees from the former Yugoslavia, visit a London obstetrician. The husband wants the wife to abort the baby she’s carrying because it was conceived during a rape by a band of enemy soldiers. The doctor avoids taking action; when the baby is born, the adoring couple names her Chaos. A teenage junkie, on his way to a soccer match abroad, nods off in an airport baggage bin and winds up in Bosnia, where he uses his heroin stash to anesthetize a man who’s about to have his leg amputated. The junkie is feted as a war hero and becomes the caretaker of a blind child. The rebellious daughter of a Conservative member of Parliament falls in love with a refugee from the former Yugoslavia and brings him home to dinner. He presents his hostess with flowers and says, “I want to thank you for your hostility.”
Jasmin Dizdar’s generous, low-budget British feature was one of the best films at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Nine months later, it seems like a more witty, wise, and succinct Magnolia. Dizdar employs the same woven-tapestry approach as Paul Thomas Anderson, but to diametrically opposite ends. For Dizdar, it’s political and cultural conflict, rather than narcissism, that shapes the human comedy.