Anna Gunn actually gets to do things in Meera Menon’s expansive high-finance drama Equity, which is almost reason enough to recommend it right there. The Breaking Bad co-star tears into the role of a rainmaking banker taking a Silicon Valley company public. For once it’s Gunn whose character gets to wheedle and manipulate, to make power moves, to let loose in self-righteous anger, to scramble as betrayals threaten everything she has struggled to build. Her Naomi Bishop powers the film, her drive its drive, her scenes all will and grit sometimes disguised behind an easy smile to keep the men in her world comfortable.
Menon and Gunn emphasize the work behind that smile, though. Gunn’s turn is a study in performance itself, in the ways Naomi finds the self she needs to play in each moment. She has to work twice as hard as the guys do, and they’re quick to remind her she can lose it all if she comes across as pushy or if they don’t care for her dress. Amy Fox’s script suggests, wittily, that Naomi has the same problem Hollywood actresses do: Millions of dollars ride on whether dudes decide she rubs them the wrong way.
Too bad that all Gunn’s work and insight aren’t to the benefit of a more interesting tale. Naomi wins the job of bringing a new, privacy-minded social-media platform’s IPO to the stock market, and then she faces the hard work of winning over investors, keeping the network’s founders happy, heading off rumors that the network is flawed, sussing out potential leaks and handling the complications of her ambitious V.P. Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), who’s bucking for a raise and the target of the bro-ish affections of the CEO.
Once in a while, these women take a moment to breathe in their respective apartments: Erin’s is tight and cluttered, filled with a man who loves her, whereas Naomi’s is sleek and spare and empty as an unoccupied hotel suite. While Naomi tries to keep a potential billion-dollar deal afloat, Erin considers what it might cost to become Naomi — just in case you haven’t gotten the point, the film shows us one of its ambitious women reading a blog post about whether women can have it all.
Two other figures complicate Naomi’s life: She’s gently dogged by Samantha (Alysia Reiner), a federal investigator convinced that Naomi is breaking the law by dishing secret tips to traders. And her occasional lover Michael (James Purefoy) happens to be one of those traders, and this sneaky cad — the film’s only true villain — tries to bypass her phone’s password while she’s sleeping. The filmmakers are after a suspenseful, novelistic examination of Wall Street corruption, of the casual ways that the firewalls between bankers and traders get breached, how the rewards for white-collar crime wildly outweigh the risks. Even Samantha faces temptations: Why live broke, like a sucker, when she could go to work for the likes of Naomi and Michael?
The specifics of the story, though, never fascinate as much as you might hope. The IPO is deeply important to everyone onscreen but only meaningful to audiences because Naomi cares so much. She seems an eager straight-arrow, and she dominates most scenes, but even as we’re privy to the work it takes to composes her business-face, Menon often chooses often to deny us a good look at it: We see Naomi over blurry shoulders, through beaded curtains or, in the opening shot, from behind as she studies her own reflection in the mirror. That’s possibly to generate tension — are we to wonder whether she might surprise us with illegalities? But it’s distancing, leaving us to wonder not how she’s going to pull her plans off but just who exactly she might secretly be.