Boiler Room and Wall Street (review)

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Greedy Little Buggers

“Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko assured us, way back in the 20th century. It didn’t sit right then — most people didn’t buy it, and Gekko was a villain, of course. Nowadays, though, you barely even hear the word greed anymore — now, it’s smart investing. How times have changed.

millionaire boys club
Whenever a movie opens — as Boiler Room does — with a disclaimer that any real-life similarities to characters or situations contained therein are purely coincidental and wholly unintended, I tend to believe that any similarities are actually purely planned and wholly intentional. I didn’t personally see anything suspiciously borrowed from reality myself, but Boiler Room has a such a frightening ring of truth to it that I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody somewhere was calling lawyers.

The wild ride that the stock market has taken in the last few years must have spawned real “companies” like J.T. Marlin. Masquerading as a upstanding brokerage, J.T. Marlin — not named for anyone but in the hopes that unwary investors will confuse it with J.P. Morgan — is running a stock scam that is making its employees millionaires on the money its customers are losing. Seth (Giovanni Ribisi: Saving Private Ryan, The Postman) doesn’t know this when he joins the firm, though — he thinks he’s taking a job that will earn him the respect of his demanding, hard-to-please father (Ron Rifkin: The Negotiator, L.A. Confidential), a judge.

Seth is a complex and terribly interesting character, and Ribisi — who deserves more opportunities to be this good — plays him both as a little boy lost and slick but honest charmer. An upright criminal — he runs, almost as a community service, an illegal casino out of his Queens apartment — he doesn’t see through the layers of seeming legitimacy to the fraud underneath at first. It doesn’t help that the firm has a cultlike policy of separating its employees from the outside world — a recruiter for Marlin, played with canny sharkiness by Ben Affleck (Dogma, Shakespeare in Love), warns his new hires not to pay any attention to the family and friends who will warn them away from such a cutthroat job. J.T. Marlin doesn’t want experienced stockbrokers — the company wants its fresh blood to be as naïve and greedy as the investors it bilks, and it wants to immerse them in its aggressive, testosterone-charged atmosphere and inculcate them in the ways of their scam without ever letting them believe they’re doing anything wrong. Seth likens the environment at Marlin to a “Hitler youth rally,” and he’s not far off.

Though Seth admits he’s looking for a “quick and easy buck” and gets high on the closing and selling, he’s a gentle guy — if not quite a gentleman — at heart, and so he never really fits in socially at J.T. Marlin. The kind of guy who smiles shyly at the pretty receptionist, Abby (Nia Long: Stigmata), and knows the value of tender wooing, Seth doesn’t belong in a place where Abby is dismissed as a “whore” and “trouble” by Seth’s boss, Greg (Nicky Katt: One True Thing, Batman and Robin), once she trades him in for Seth. But more grotesque — and all too believable — is Marlin’s head jerk, Michael (Tom Everett Scott: The Love Letter, One True Thing), offering hookers as bonuses at the party he throws for his brokers, at which the entirely male staff (apart from those troublesome whore secretaries) rampages through a hotel.

The firm’s HQ may be off exit 53 of the Long Island Expressway (in other words, worlds away from Manhattan) but they act, or so Seth thinks, like they’re on Wall Street. But when the gang from Marlin — including Seth’s old friend Adam (Jamie Kennedy: Scream 3, Bowfinger), the thuggish Richie (Scott Caan: Enemy of the State), and the cool and slippery Chris (Vin Diesel: The Iron Giant, who’s much scarier and effective here than he is in Pitch Black) — ventures into Manhattan for a night out, actual Wall Street brokers recognize them for the swaggering, bridge-and-tunnel assholes they are. They’re low-class pigs, high on so much money that they don’t know what to do with it all, and they probably won’t ever change.

Except for Seth, of course. Boiler Room is one of what’s practically a new genre of films: “GenXer gets a conscience,” and credit to first-time writer/director Ben Younger where credit is due: Seth’s search for the difference between what’s morally right and wrong — which isn’t always the same as what’s legally right and wrong — never feels overly earnest or obvious. In characteristic GenX fashion, in fact, Seth — however he feels on the inside — is on the surface ever practical, trying to undo some of the mistakes he has made when he can, and moving on to correctable things when he can’t.

And that realistic attitude is a big part of what makes Boiler Room so refreshing: Younger doesn’t offer any pat, happy endings, doesn’t have all his characters wrap things up by kissing and making nice. The film ends on such an abrupt note — and such a perfect one — that I gasped with unexpected delight.

Great film. I can’t wait to see what Younger has up his sleeve for us next.

working guy
Boiler Room has been likened to 1987’s Wall Street, but, boy, this Oliver Stone flick looks downright quaint by comparison. Not that it isn’t still totally gripping.

Set in the heady days before the October 1987 crash — and before anyone had any clue that those wild times were but a prelude the even crazier 90s — Wall Street has more in common with Working Girl (which came just a year later) than with Boiler Room. Like Girl’s secretary from the boroughs looking to make it big in Manhattan, here Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen: Being John Malkovich, Platoon) has working-class roots but is determined to be a player on Wall Street. Sure, like Boiler Room’s Seth, Bud has issues with his dad, Carl (Martin Sheen: Monument Avenue) — but where Seth wants to get closer to his father, Bud wants distance from the old man. Good ol’ down-to-earth Carl: an airplane mechanic and union rep for Bluestar Airlines, he wonders why Bud doesn’t just move home to Queens if he’s struggling on his own in Manhattan. “I’m not a salesman,” Bud, exasperated, has to remind Carl, “I’m an account executive.” Dad just doesn’t get it — “money is a giant pain the ass,” he says — and Bud will do all he can to escape a past that embodies that kind of attitude. Which, natch, will be his downfall.

Bud imagines himself on the other end of the line, at his job making endless cold calls as a low-ranking stockbroker — he wants to be the one making the big trades and treating the junior broker like dirt. “Get out while you’re young, kid,” an older, weary coworker warns him; his boss tells him to stick with sure, steady investments, like IBM. But Bud’s aiming (like Seth) for the quick, easy bucks — he wants to work for Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas: A Perfect Murder, The Ghost and the Darkness), who’s either a genius financier, if you ask Bud, or a “two-bit pirate,” according to Gekko’s rival, Sir Larry Wildman (Terence Stamp: The Phantom Menace, Bowfinger).

The reptilian Gekko — one of the most perfectly named characters in movie history — becomes a sort of twisted Obi-Wan Kenobi to Bud’s Luke, introducing Bud to the mysterious voodoo of international high finance and the illusory realms of stock and real-estate speculation. Bud takes the slow road to hell, but it doesn’t take him long to go from honest protestations that insider trading is illegal to using privileged information to engineer a Gekko takeover of his dad’s employer, Bluestar. Watch him weasel some valuable gossip from an old college friend (James Spader: Supernova) with a casual, “Come on, everybody’s doing it.”

“Greed is good… greed works,” Gekko intones famously in Wall Street, and it was meant to be a shocking pronouncement at the time. That’s the attitude that feels old-fashioned now. That greed is good is a given today, when suburban ladies’ investment clubs are pulling down 20 percent returns and dotcom IPOs make twentysomethings millionaires overnight, and heroes for it. Even Boiler Room’s hero starts with that assumption, and isn’t punished for it. Gekko himself feels like a charming antique compared to Boiler Room’s snakes. Though J.T. Marlin’s brokers idolize Gekko — in one scene, they watch Wall Street and recite Gekko’s dialogue like a prayer — they haven’t a clue how to emulate his sense of style. Gekko’s an asshole, no question, but he has good taste in art, in women, in food, in cigars, in architecture — he may be richer than God, but he knows how to spend it. Seth’s boss, Greg, on the other hand, is still living out of boxes eight months after moving into his mansion; Chris, fer pete’s sake, still lives with his mom. Gekko at least enjoys his fortune. For Boiler Room’s sharks, it’s just a way of keeping score — who’s got the most hit points?

Boiler Room may show us the fruits of what the likes of Gekko wrought, but Bud, back there in the 80s, still has a chance to escape. His taste of the high life — amazing new apartment, coke and hookers, sophisticated girlfriend (Daryl Hannah: My Favorite Martian) — doesn’t last long before everything starts to fall apart, and his betrayals of his family and friends turn around and bite him on the ass. Bud readjusts his priorities, and though the comeuppance he engineers for Gekko, with the help of Wildman, may be a tad traditional, storywise, it is highly satisfying and comforting in a way that Boiler Room won’t allow us.

Greed, Wall Street wants us to know in the end, isn’t good. Boiler Room, on the other hand, accepts the reality of greed with resignation and assigns it a neutral value — it’s what we do with our sense of greed that makes it good or bad.

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