To say that Wall Street shenanigans are well storied onscreen is both an understatement and a misdirection. Sure, there have been lots of movies (and documentaries) set in the world of high finance… and as with nearly ever other human endeavor that gets depicted in film, most of them are about men. Even in movies about Big Money based on real-life events in which women played significant roles, women’s contributions tend to get glossed over or eliminated entirely; see The Big Short. We may think we’ve got a good grip on how Wall Street operates based on the movies we’ve seen, but we’ve only gotten half the story.
So there hasn’t been a movie quite like Equity before, one featuring multiple distinct female characters who are proudly open about being ambitious, seeking power, and loving making gobs of money. (Multiple women in major roles shouldn’t be such a novelty, but it is.) Heck, we’ve barely seen a woman in a movie about Wall Street who isn’t a stripper or a hooker since way back in 1988’s Working Girl. Financed and produced by a team of female Wall Street veterans — many of whom have had careers long enough to have been inspired by Melanie Griffith slipping into her boss Sigourney Weaver’s job and doing it better — this is a labor-of-love project for its all-female creative team, including director Meera Menon, screenwriter Amy Fox (Heights), and stars Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, who also serve as producers. Equity is a fueled by women’s entirely justifiable anger over the lack of female presence of consequence onscreen.
Meet investment banker Naomi Bishop (Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), who is almost at the top of her game… no easy place for a woman to be on male-dominated Wall Street. But she’s still waiting for the promotion that will catapult her into the most rarefied realms of high-finance, which may be her latest IPO project, raising investors for a billion-dollar public offering of hot new tech firm Cachet. But it’s hitting a few snags, including one she always faces: She’s never sure if she can quite trust her longtime lover, hedge-fund manager Michael Connor (James Purefoy: High-Rise, John Carter). They work in different departments of the same bank and are supposed to keep their work “firewalled,” but he is always looking to crack Bishop’s insider’s angle for his own benefit. And now Bishop has to worry about the old school friend, Samantha Ryan (Orange Is the New Black’s Reiner), she reconnects with at an alumni event. Ryan is now a federal public prosecutor investigating white-collar crime, and hints she may be poking around Bishop’s company.
Bishop’s perspective isn’t distinctly a woman’s one; she could almost be a he without changing much of anything here, and that’s a good thing: women have universal human experiences just like men do, though we barely see women’s lives treated that way onscreen. But we also have Bishop’s VP assistant, Erin Manning (Thomas), who faces some uniquely feminine issues, such as a pregnancy she feels she must hide in a company that is not going to look kindly on such an outside distraction, and also fending off the sexual advances of head Cachet dudebro Ed (Samuel Roukin, bringing a bit of his Turn: Washington’s Spies creepiness onboard) without alienating his business.
The amazing representation is bone-deep in Equity — Ryan’s spouse appears only in passing, but she’s another woman (Tracie Thoms: Annie, Safe House), and black. But that’s nowhere near enough on its own to make for a compelling story, which is what is sorely lacking here. There’s a sloppy fog surrounding just what the heck the big deal about Cachet is meant to be: it’s something to do with online privacy that could maybe turn into a social network, but the movie is maddeningly vague on this, and the nitty-gritty of Cachet’s business does become a significant point upon which the plot pivots. A moment of major realization on one character’s part swings on something as trivial as the picking up of a pen in a situation in which that seems unlikely to have happened, which may be the best example of how perfunctory and anticlimactic the script is.
Frustratingly, Equity is simply rather dull. It wants to be intriguing and suspenseful, but the movie doesn’t know how to make that happen. Instead of a cracking tale, we have what feels like a clunky, monotonous recitation of events: this happens, and this happens, and then this other thing. There’s no fascination in the characters, no tension in what they’re plotting, and little sense of completion when their plans come to fruition. It just all comes to a stop.
I wanted to believe in the fire of these women. Bishop, Ryan, and Manning form a sort of antagonistic triad that should theoretically be riveting, but it never is. Equity has none of the power of driving personality that makes movies like Wall Street and The Big Short and — yes — Working Girl so compulsively watchable. Yet that is precisely what it is trying to be about. I’m so disappointed.
A shorter version of this review appeared first at The List.