Boiler Room (2000)

reviewed by
Sean Molloy

Boiler Room (* * * 1/2)
Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Nikky Katt
Directed By Ben Younger
New Line Cinema, Rated R, 2000
Running Time: 2 Hours
By Sean Molloy

People who say that money is the root of all evil have never had any. So says Jim (Ben Affleck), the trainee whip at the J.T. Marlin brokerage firm. Jim is a millionaire. You, too, will be millionaires if you come on board, Jim tells an entire roomful of nineteen and twenty year old guys, and they believe him. His passionate speeches and promises of fast money are what draw them in. The huge houses, big screen televisions, and expensive cars in the parking lot are what keep them there. Among the believers is Seth (Giovanni Ribisi), a kid who runs a back door casino in his apartment. Watching these scenes is all too reminiscent of the brand of cult behavior you'd find at a recruiting session for a pyramid scheme... I've seen friends fall prey to this brand of seductive half-logic, shut themselves off, and turn into propaganda-spewing sales robots. Let me assure you, it's not a pretty sight.

The J.T. Marlin firm is what's known as a chop shop; they use high-pressure sales tactics to push stocks that don't exist on faceless people over the telephone. Its members quote David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and Oliver Stone's Wall Street as if they were reading from the Bible, and take every word from these films with their irony and sarcasm detectors held in the off position with a piece of duct tape.

To my surprise, there's been an inordinate amount of internet-fueled backlash against how the characters are trying too hard to sound hip and cool, and all they accomplish is that they wind up sounding like posers. All I can say to that is, well... duh. Boiler Room shows us an entire stock-market subculture that's traded individuality for a quick buck; it presents us with figures that have ceased being people and have become simple tools to perform a job. They smack of phoniness, and we witness through their pathetic attempts at "romance" and snap bar fights how they can't function in society, but only amongst themselves and in the context of their work. There are themes at work here that are addressed in David Fincher's Fight Club... only these brokers aren't fighting to break free from societal chains, but rather to keep themselves from losing them.

Most of the J.T. Marlin family chooses to shut its eyes and plug its ears against the obvious fact that the firm isn't exactly on the up and up... senior broker Chris is one of them (Chris is well played by Vin Diesel, who also stars in this week's Pitch Black, and the guy displays an undeniable charisma in both of these films.)

But unlike the others, Seth soon begins to understand the grotesque machine he has become a part of, and he does not like what he sees. When his sense of ethics kicks in, he's torn between the huge amounts of money he stands to make and the fact that he just screwed over a family man in order to make that money. He toys with the old soldiers' adage of "just obeying orders" to try and justify it to himself, but he eventually realizes he simply can't go on living like that.

This is where Boiler Room makes its most effective move. The film genuinely complicates Seth's motives by making him a kid who, when all is said and done, simply craves the approval of his father. This layer of the movie adds a welcome dimension to what easily could have been another exercise in tired, generic ethics. The treatment of Seth's girlfriend Abby (Nia Long) is another refreshing piece of the picture. Their romance seems genuine, the potential interracial political correctness is held at bay; and as Seth's moral center, she doesn't simply offer the good and righteous answers - her views are often as skewed as his own.

My only complaint comes at the end, and it's a trap that too many good films tend to fall into. Boiler Room goes a long way to demonstrate the wrongs Seth has done and how he feels about it - through interjecting scenes of the people whose lives Seth has destroyed, as well as through Seth's own actions. But then the movie decides to spell out in big, bold letters what we already know, and a character essentially delivers a sermon on what the audience has already been effectively shown. So a note to filmmakers: Subtlety and subtext are wondrous things, put faith in the intelligence of your audience, and trust that you got your message across. Please, I'm begging you, don't beat me over the head with it.

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