MF 349 : Summer movie series: Boiler Room (2000)
Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
Outdated, yet still relevant
Boiler Room (2000) is one those movies in which the exterior is outdated but the message and themes are still with us today. It's also a movie that I called "new-old." It feels like it just came out yesterday but the conspicuous absence of smart phones plus other telltale signs reminds me it's over 20 years old. I first saw this on a post-bar exam vacation flight. In-flight movies rarely keep my attention but this one grabbed me from beginning to end.
Boiler Room (2000) has at its heart two big themes. It's on one hand an age-old tale of a son who longs for his father's love and acceptance. The son is Seth Davis, capably played by Giovanni Ribisi. And while his dialect and fast-talking delivery sometimes becomes a little grating, he's mostly a sympathetic character. The father is not a hugs and "grab a coffee to talk things out" kind of guy. He's a stern man, a federal judge who is more than disappointed to discover that Seth has dropped out of college to open an illegal casino out of his apartment.
The second theme is about temptation and the dream of easy riches. The movie opens mid-story, a clever narrative device, in which Seth is now a stock broker at a shady firm called "JT Marlin." Seth is surrounded by brokers, all of whom are gambling, doing drugs and generally acting obnoxious at a celebration inside a swanky hotel. Seth is lost in thought as he tells us how he got swept up into a business built on a culture of lies, seduction, and selling worthless stocks to hapless victims.
The movie then flashes back several months. Seth has had another blowout argument with his father, this time over his illegal casino. Despite his father's admonitions, Seth decides to continue his business, all while hoping that he can one day win his father's respect. Then, one fateful evening, Seth's friend (Jamie Kennedy) visits with a colleague, Greg Weinstein (Nicky Katt). Both are dressed in thousand dollar suits and Seth spies Greg's new Ferrari parked out front. Until this point, Seth thought he was making good money. Now he sees that he is minor league compared with these guys. As they play a few rounds of poker, Seth learns that they're stock brokers. Greg is impressed with Seth and thinks he might have what it takes to be a good broker and gives him a sales pitch. Ironically, he tells Seth that his casino business is risky and that he could get shut down at any moment. He also asks Seth to envision himself dealing cards to college kids when he gets older. At this, the wheels turn in Seth's head and he decides to take Greg up on an offer to come interview at the firm.
Through Seth's inner monologue, we follow his drive to the firm. JT Marlin isn't on Wall Street and it's not inside a tall glass skyscraper. Instead, we see a nondescript building in the middle of an industrial park somewhere on Long Island. In the parking lot, Seth parks his mom's Volvo station wagon next to a fleet of expensive exotic cars.
Seth joins a group of other ambitious, wide-eyed 20-somethings into a conference room where the firm's top broker, Jim Young (Ben Affleck) gives them the "interview." Jim makes a proposition. Come work at JT Marlin for a senior broker, learn the ropes by opening 40 accounts for him (the firm notoriously doesn't hire women or cater to any female clients), and then you'll be on your way to making the big bucks. Jim impresses them with his boasts of his lifestyle: an expensive car, his "ridiculous" house, and being "100% liquid." Finally, he closes them by saying if they work hard, they will become millionaires within 3 years.
That's all Seth needs to hear. He turns the reins of his casino over to his business partner and starts working for Greg. At first, Seth is a deer in the headlights but soon he gets caught up in the frenzy and the rush of cold call pitching. Greg alleviates any suspicions Seth has by saying all of their clients are well to do, calling them "whales."
After stumbling out the gate, Seth finds his grove and is quickly on his way to becoming a superstar. However, things seem a little too good to be true and he finds himself on a perilous path. As Seth learns the business, he discovers that the firm's practices don't follow SEC regulations. Then, he finds himself on opposite sides with Greg when he starts dating Abbie Halpert (Nia Long), the firm's six-figure salaried secretary. Things come to a head when he seduces a naive middle manager to put his family's savings into a stock that crashes and burns leaving Seth with a crisis of conscious.
Boiler Room is a frenetic movie that doesn't let up from the opening frame. We find ourselves caught up in Seth's journey and yet the movie wisely doesn't glamourize the goal post of ill gotten riches. In one of the best scenes, Seth goes to Jim Young's house where he's hosting a party. The house is gigantic on the outside but inside, it's barely furnished as boxes and gaudy art line the hallways. When Seth asks if Jim just moved in, one of the junior brokers reveals Jim has been living there for almost a year. The "party" turns out to be a bunch of guys sitting on the floor with open pizza boxes, watching and reenacting the movie Wall Street on a giant screen TV.
Boiler Room perfectly captures the stress of a high stakes sales environment with an undercurrent of criminality and the pursuit of fast riches. The movie makes brilliant use of color to contrast its environments and characters. We see a blue hue that clouds the trading room where the brokers cold call their clients. As Seth gets caught up in this world, his wardrobe slowly becomes darker and more soulless. Moreover, we see that none of the brokers are able to enjoy their wealth. It doesn't bring them happiness, healthy relationships, or peace of mind. Instead, we see characters that are slaves to the firm, always fearful that they're just two steps away from getting caught. While the film isn't technically perfect and relies on several leaps of logic to conclude it's story, it's an allegory that's worth watching with still timely lessons and themes.
Boiler Room is a movie that is worth your investment of time with an ROI of entertainment and poignant lessons about the perils of using shortcuts to chase after the American dream.
Solid performances from an ensemble cast, including Ben Affleck and Vin Diesel right before they hit mega stardom.
Tight plot and great pacing that moves the story.
Interesting use of colors to set the tone, mood and character arcs.
Some scenes are technically inaccurate and rely on leaps of logic, particularly at the end.
The soundtrack is overbearing at times.
Giovanni Ribisi is an overall solid actor but sometimes his dialect and dialogue are over the top.
I would love to see a sequel set in today's era of social media and retail trading on mobile apps.
**** (out of five)
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