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150 Films #17: Boiler Room (2000)

I’m a big fan of Oliver Stone’s early films, but I have to admit I never much liked Wall Street, arguably his most popular and enduring movie. Stone, especially in this period, was big on turning American stories into the stuff of myths. Platoon made Vietnam into something like The Iliad, and Wall Street turned the coke-fueled trading of the ’80s into Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with deliberate allusions to Frank Capra’s work. It turned what could have been a story of complicated motives and shitty behavior into a generic tale of good versus evil. If Bud Fox’s (Charlie Sheen) early seduction by Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), followed by his redemption after the scales fall from his eyes, qualifies as moral complexity, let’s just say it’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather watch Capra than Capra with cocaine.

Boiler Room, an underrated film about the corruption of the high-stakes financial world, could almost be considered a superior remake of Stone’s 1987 film. In fact, I’d wager it’s underrated (to the point of being largely forgotten) because of its deliberate similarities. However, where the stories overlap, writer/director Ben Younger improves everywhere Stone goes wrong.

Let’s start with the hero, Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi). In his running voiceover narration, Seth makes no bones about his goal: he wants to make the most money through the least effort. When we first meet him, he’s dropped out of college and makes ends meet by running an illegal casino for his ex-classmates. This establishes the first of many parallels between gambling and stock trading; more importantly, it establishes Seth as a character who lacks the gee-whiz naïveté of Bud Fox. He doesn’t immediately know J.T. Marlin is a boiler room (or chop shop), but he knows something’s wrong pretty early on—and doesn’t care. Even when he pieces together how the company illegally makes money, he keeps going with it until it’s clear he only has one option: throw them under the bus to save his own ass.

In Wall Street, Bud regains his moral compass when he discovers Gekko’s plans will leave his own father (Martin Sheen) unemployed and without a pension. Personal stakes thus established, Bud uses his Wall Street knowledge to double-cross Gekko. In contrast, Seth doesn’t have much interest in impressing his bosses; he wants to impress his father, a cantankerous judge (played with prickly aplomb by Ron Rifkin). Seth’s moment of clarity has very little to do with righteous morality; it’s about the twin cannons of going to prison and losing his father forever.

I’ll stop the compare-and-contrast now, because this is about why Boiler Room resonates with me, not why I don’t like Wall Street. It hits a number of my sweet spots, but first and foremost, it’s an incisive study of douchey dudebro culture. The offices of J.T. Marlin brim with the worst kind of asshole: the kind who tries to overdo the “alpha male” shtick to mask deep insecurities. Seth, our narrator and window into this world, is not One Of Them. He might have questionable morals, but he’s a decent person overall. At first, he buys the dudebro bullshit at face value. He thinks these guys are all millionaires, big swinging dicks who have earned the right to stomp all over everyone else. As his relationships deepen, he begins to see the cracks in their façades: his boss, Greg (Nicky Katt), has a gambling problem and unfortunate obsession with the secretary, Abbie (Nia Long); Richie (Scott Caan) is a hot-headed alcoholic; Jim (Ben Affleck) walks around in flashy suits bragging about his income, while living out of boxes in a barren McMansion; and the best of them, Chris (Vin Diesel), talks a good game about his experience with women despite living at home with his mother. They’re all bigots and misogynists; even within the offices, factions have developed pitting Jew against Gentile, Irish against Italian, and so on.

The dynamics of this culture make for the most compelling scenes in the movie. Inside the office, they’re kings; outside, innocuous traders from J.P. Morgan undermine their confidence, and a group of gay men shatter their machismo with an impressive string of cutting comebacks. In short, they might be millionaires (“might” is the operative word), but they’re losers. Not-so-deep down, they feel worthless. Seth is keenly aware of this, which is perhaps one reason why he has no problem with selling them out in the end. It’s hard to feel bad for any of them, because even if they’re too stupid to realize they scam people for a living, they’re the worst kind of repugnant.

Through all this, Younger directs his script to heighten moral ambiguities. He lets us watch these unpleasant men screw over John Q. Average American without making prosaic judgments, without elevating Seth to an unearned superior status just because he happens to be more likable. He shows us that the behavior of these men is not right, they do not do these things for good reasons, but they’re also deeply screwed up. Does that mean any of them deserve our sympathy? Younger leaves that for the viewer to decide, a Rorschach inkblot of shitty people doing shitty things in hopes of escaping shitty lives.

The characters in Boiler Room have two major cultural touchstones: Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross. In name-checking the two most famous movies made about high-stakes sales, Younger deliberately shows his characters missing the point. In one of the most well-known scenes, the dudebros recite Gekko’s dialogue as if he’s the hero and not the villain. Similarly, they all seem to believe that Alec Baldwin’s tour de force opening monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross spells out the truth of sales: Always Be Closing. Everyone should aspire to that, no matter what. Go ahead and ignore the other 90 minutes about the soul-sucking desperation of those who know they need to Always Be Closing but lack the numbness and sociopathy to go that extra mile. Younger’s characters yearn to emulate the wrong “heroes,”

Even when it comes to the mark, Younger balances on a tightrope of complex behavior. As Seth begins to unravel the shady dealings of J.T. Marlin, he also climbs the ladder. He has his own “clients,” but now he knows he’s screwing them. He knows he’s not letting them in on anything so they both make a ton of money; effectively, he and J.T. Marlin are stealing from them. So when Seth closes Harry Reynard (Whit Stillman and AT&T commercial regular Taylor Nichols), he feels his first pangs of guilt. The more they talk, the more Seth has to convince Harry to ride it out until he’s lost everything, and the guiltier he feels. But neither Younger nor Nichols let Harry entirely off the hook. In the early going, he’s practically salivating with greed. The harder Seth pushes, the easier it is to close Harry. Younger lets us in on the private lives of the Reynard family, showing us the fighting between husband and wife, the fear of the children who have to witness these things, and the increasingly erratic decisions fueled by Harry’s palpable mix of greed and yearning to provide for his family.

In the end, the Reynards lose everything. Rumor has it that the ending originally including the agitated, destroyed Harry showing up at J.T. Marlin with an assault rifle, just as the FBI raid goes down. I’m glad Younger changed that, because Harry’s indignation—however righteous—would have lost that complexity. It’s easy to sympathize with Harry’s desire to provide and gullibility; at the same time, Harry gets closed because he doesn’t want to put in the time or work to earn provisions. Like Seth’s casino and the shell game of J.T. Marlin, Harry wants a shortcut to wealth and retirement, a college fund for the kids and a boat for the weekends. Seth has every right to feel guilty for deliberately screwing him, but Harry is not as innocent a victim as the voice on the phone might sound.

In Boiler Room, there are no innocents. Unlike Martin Sheen’s saintly working-class union boss in Wall Street, even the father Seth is so desperate to impress is an asshole, running his family the same way we imagine him running his courtroom. Unfailingly ethical, he’s also unfailingly stern and, at best, metes out backhanded compliments. In a telling scene, Seth describes a moment from childhood when he turfed out on his bike and almost died. Unable to move, he had to wait for someone to find him; when his father did, he seized up in momentary paralysis, overcome with emotion. That’s the first and only time, Seth says, that he knew his father loved him—and he responds to this moment of naked vulnerability by slapping his injured son across the face.

Watching it again, the film kind of shook me up with how much is going on under the surface of what, in lesser hands, could have just been a Wall Street rehash. Younger showed incredible promise here, and more or less disappeared after the equally complex romantic dramedy Prime. Last year, an L.A. Times profile explained where he went and why he chose his comeback film, Bleed for This. I have yet to see it, but I nevertheless hope it’s the comeback he’s looking for.

Keep or Sell? Keep

Up Next: Boogie Nights (1997)

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