Boiler Room, The (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

These days, few things are hotter than the stock market, and everyone who isn't making a killing on Wall Street is feeling very left out. Of course, for every millionaire secretary who struck it rich by buying low and selling high, there are stories of men and women with the opposite fate - but, in the midst of an economic boom, we never hear about them. Likewise, for every honest stock broker who works 18 hour days to boost his clients' portfolios and inflate his own commissions, there are those who toil in so-called "boiler rooms", where the workload is no lighter, but where few (if any) buyers come out ahead.

Those who work in boiler rooms are participating in scams that routinely break SEC regulations and bilk investors out of huge amounts of money. Boiler room employees are the ultimate high-pressure salesmen. They do all their work on the phone, promising untold riches, confiding ultra-confidential "tips", and preying on the investor's greed and fear of missing out on a great opportunity. "No" is not in their vocabulary, and the only way to get rid of them is to hang up on them. Ultimately, the commodity they are offering tends to be worthless - some of the companies they sell stocks in don't exist. Boiler room brokers have two goals on any given day: make as much money as possible and avoid being arrested.

The lure of quick money is what attracts Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) to the boiler room of J.T. Marlin, a "chop shop" brokerage firm located on Long Island, not on Wall Street. For all of Seth's life, he has wanted only two things: to become a millionaire and to earn his father's respect. In his quest to attain the former, however, he has endangered his chances for the latter. A 19-year old college drop out, Seth is running a small-time illegal casino out of his apartment - a business that his dad (Ron Rifkin), a New York City judge, disapproves of. So, in an attempt to go legit, Seth joins J.T. Marlin as a trainee. But, even as he's on the fast track to wealth and success, he suspects that everything may not be on the up-and-up, and his conscience begins to prick him when he realizes he is cheating hard-working family men out of their life's savings just to earn himself a few thousand dollars in commissions.

Three movies immediately come to mind while watching Boiler Room, two of which are openly referred to within the text. There's Oliver Stone's Wall Street, which is a source of inspiration for the men of J.T. Marlin (they all know the dialogue by heart), and Glengarry Glenn Ross, from which they get some of their office terminology (like "ABC", which stands for the motto, "Always Be Closing"). There's also a little of Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men in the way Boiler Room depicts the relationships between the men - a false sense of camaraderie overlying deeper feelings of greed and self-centeredness. These people live and breathe money; they don't have time for real relationships. Seth's attempts to re-connect with his father and to develop something meaningful with Abby (Nia Long), the firm's secretary, indicate that he really doesn't belong where he is.

First time writer/director Ben Younger crafted this screenplay from an insider's perspective. In addition to interviewing for a job at a boiler room firm and seeing some of its operations, he spent countless hours speaking to brokers, who, on the condition of anonymity, provided him with as much information as he needed. Thus was born Boiler Room, a quintessential story of turn-of-the-century greed and redemption. And, while I can't vouch for the verisimilitude of the movie's setting, it feels plausible. The attention to detail allows Boiler Room to achieve the same sort of insight into stock brokering that Glengarry Glenn Ross offered into sales. In fact, this aspect of the film is what makes Boiler Room a compelling movie-going experience. The characters and plot become secondary to the setting and atmosphere.

For his cast, Younger has reeled in a number of Hollywood's hot and happening young actors. Giovanni Ribisi (most recently in The Mod Squad) is given the opportunity to play an adult role, but, at least for Boiler Room's first half, there's an odd sense of coldness and detachment in his performance. It's hard to accept this version of Seth as fitting in with the rest of the J.T. Marlin crew and becoming one of their brightest stars. More convincing are Vin Diesel (Saving Private Ryan) as Chris, a senior broker who takes a liking to Seth, and Nicky Katt (The Limey) as Greg, Seth's envious mentor. The real scene-stealer is Ben Affleck, whose riveting supporting performance recalls Alec Baldwin's mesmerizing cameo in Glengarry Glenn Ross. Also appearing are Tom Everett Scott as the head of J.T. Marlin, Scream's Jamie Kennedy as another broker, and Taylor Nichols as a man whose dream of owning a home causes him to fall prey to one of Seth's scams.

There are times when Younger displays his inexperience as a filmmaker. In one scene, for example, his choice of shots - as series of close-ups of Nia Long and Giovanni Ribisi - becomes repetitious. For the most part, however, such mishaps are minor, and the strength of the subject matter, not to mention our fascination with it, easily overcomes them. There's a familiarity to the attitudes and ideas encountered here. As Seth notes, too few of us want to work hard for our money; instead, we seek the quick, easy path to excess. Also apropos, however, is an old proverb: "If it seems too good to be true, it is." And that simple adage encapsulates a philosophy that no one in this film has learned.

Boiler Room, The (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2000-02-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1