Boiler Room (2000)

reviewed by
Shay Casey

**1/2 out of ****

Year: 2000. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Nia Long, Nicky Katt, Tom Everett Scott, Ben Affleck, Scott Caan, Ron Rifkin, Jamie Kennedy, Taylor Nichols. Written by Ben Younger. Directed by Ben Younger. Rated R.

After viewing "Boiler Room," I came to an interesting conclusion: Most movies looking to provide viewers with an "in-depth" portrayal of a particular profession end up making it look like a pretty lousy job. Either they take the route of most movies about the teaching profession and show that, however worthwhile, the job is exceedingly difficult ("Stand and Deliver," anyone?), or they show you all the nasty, ugly stuff lurking under the surface that you don't want to see. "Boiler Room" goes for the latter. I can't think of anyone who would want to be a stockbroker after seeing this one. Trouble is, the characters in "Boiler Room" take a look at a film equally critical of the same profession -- Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" -- and find exactly what they are looking for. Huh? Good question. This film attempts to explain the mentality that leads young men to the high-pressure world of selling stocks. And though "Boiler Room" doesn't quite work as a complete piece of cinema, some of its insight into this world is still quite fascinating.

Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) runs a private casino out of his basement. Though he' s supposed to be in college, he has since dropped out and concentrated entirely on his new business. Soon, however, Seth's disapproving father (Ron Rifkin), a judge, discovers his deception and virtually disowns his son. Seth, desperate to gain his father's respect, takes up a job offer from one of his customers: A small firm called J.T. Marlin is offering young recruits instant wealth -- they'll be millionaires within their first three years. Seth goes to the job "interview," which is more like a recruiting session, where broker Jim Young (Ben Affleck) delivers forceful speeches designed to draw the men to the company. After joining the firm as a trainee, Seth finds the work hectic and stressful, but still satisfying. He meets his co-workers, such as Greg (Nicky Katt) and Chris (Vin Diesel), two group leaders who keep up a friendly stream of insults with each other, Michael (Tom Everett Scott), the charismatic chairman, and Abby (Nia Long), a beautiful secretary Seth takes a liking to. He's good at his job and is finally doing something his father can approve of. But Seth starts noticing suspicious things about his seemingly gracious employer. J.T. Marlin can afford to pay its employees exorbitant amounts of cash, strange for such a small firm. Eventually, he discovers the truth: The firm is a "chop-shop," a place that sells nonexistent stocks to unwitting customers, and one that is under investigation by the FBI.

The films which served as Younger's inspiration for "Boiler Room" are quite evident. His characters quote lines from "Wall Street" and extol the virtues of "Glengarry Glen Ross," while Younger himself seems to channel David Mamet when writing his dialogue; his film is full of quintessential Mamet-speak -- curt, profane, and riddled with epithets. Derivative nature aside, most of these conversations are sharply written, even darkly funny at times. Younger displays some ironic wit here: These characters are well-to-do white men who speak like they came from the ghetto. The film utilizes a rap-infested soundtrack to enforce the notion (and just in case you're wondering, yes, Younger did start out directing music videos), and many of the scenes in "Boiler Room" are quite stunning in their effectiveness. The offices at J.T. Marlin literally are boiling pots of tension, ready to explode at any moment, and much of the tension is brought in by strong, forceful performances by two actors: Nicky Katt and Vin Diesel. They aren't the main characters (though sometimes I wished they were), but the duo bring energy to the material whenever they arrive on screen. Ben Affleck, playing the Alec Baldwin part (from "Glengarry"), delivers his monologues quite well.

"Boiler Room" is an interesting film, but the problem is that whatever interesting points it might have delivered are dulled by the slipshod way the film has been slapped together. Younger is still inexperienced as a filmmaker, and his shot selection gets downright monotonous at times: Practically every conversation is an endless stream of close-ups. But I'm willing to overlook such faults, as long as the filmmaker has enough material to keep me interested for the full running time. "Boiler Room" only has enough to sustain about half a film. The first hour is quite good. We meet plenty of colorful characters and learn quite a lot about the inner workings of a firm like J.T. Marlin. But Younger, for all his dedication to Mamet-style dialogue, forgets that it isn't enough to merely show us what happens in an office like this, not enough to fill a feature-length film, anyway. Conversations that seemed insightful in the first half become tedious in the second. But why? Aren't they essentially the same conversations? Yes, and it is precisely because they are the same conversations that they cease to be interesting. Notice how team leaders Greg and Chris have the same racially-charged argument every time. Notice how Ben Affleck delivers what is essentially the same speech no less than three times. (In "Glengarry," Mamet was wise to have Alec Baldwin show up once for a stunning and forceful monologue and then resist the temptation to bring him back for another.) Notice how Seth, the ostensible lead character, learns almost nothing by the end of the film -- other than that he should've stuck with his illegal casino business. David Mamet is Younger's inspiration, but he writes conversations that give us new insight into his characters each time around; Younger writes conversations that go nowhere by the time two characters talk to each other a second time. "Boiler Room's" script is big on introduction, and short on development.

Younger also seems to be afraid of mainstream audiences not "getting" his film, so he throws in several superfluous subplots that never amount to much, like the truncated romance between Ribisi and Nia Long. While the film should be commended for not harping on the interracial nature of the relationship, it still never gets really interesting. Seth's relationship with his father sits in neutral for a long while until the film pulls out a contrived (and unearned) resolution to it. (Ribisi's "breakdown" scene towards the end isn't the least bit believable.) And what was that about the FBI sting? Don't even ask. The screenplay has hampered what ought to have been a character-driven film and saddled it with far too much plot. It also makes the grave mistake of having the laconic and disinterested Seth as its lead character, because the film doesn't need a lead character at all. It would have been better had Younger treated this as an ensemble piece, giving more screen time to the interesting personalities employed by J.T. Marlin.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh on the film. I didn't hate "Boiler Room." Quite the opposite, it intrigued me so greatly that I was left wanting more. The film is good in pieces, particularly a scene where Seth berates a telemarketer for serving him a lousy sales pitch (don't you wish you could do that?) and a subplot involving a spineless middle-class family man (Taylor Nichols) who gets taken for all he's worth by J.T. Marlin. This part of the film is easily the most effective, portraying and personalizing just what these "chop-shop" firms do to people. The result is absolutely disgusting. Younger's film also manages to tap into a late-90's "boom economy" mentality, one in which young men, having seen computer hackers and stockbrokers making millions at the drop of a hat, demand their own substantial slice of the pie. But all these good pieces don't add up to a coherent whole, and this film ultimately fails, falling apart in a formulaic and repetitive second half that loses whatever points it had been making. "Boiler Room" does a lot of nice things; too bad it doesn't manage to do them for a full two hours.

-reviewed by Shay Casey

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