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.