Boiler Room

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Should a movie be slammed for being derivative if it wears its influences on its sleeve — if it even goes so far as to cite its influences within its own scenes and dialogue? It depends. Swingers, for instance, struck me as a shallow film importing quotes from Reservoir Dogs and GoodFellas simply so that we’d recognize them and feel hip. Boiler Room is another story. The barking young stockbrokers in Boiler Room, an energizing and confident debut by writer-director Ben Younger, have seen Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the film version of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. They didn’t get the message of those movies, though; all they took away was the romance of greed, the giddy avarice of the decade of conspicuous consumption.

Our young hero here is Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), who ditched college after a year and runs a thriving backroom casino out of his apartment. One night, an old friend (Jamie Kennedy) comes to Seth’s casino with an acquaintance: Greg (Nicky Katt), a brooding stockbroker for a small firm on Long Island. Seduced by the promise of quick money, and looking for a way to win the approval of his hard-nosed father (Ron Rifkin), Seth easily buys into the firm’s spiel. Soon enough, he’s on the phone getting investors to buy into it, too.

Boiler Room is a skillful and convincing rise-and-fall story. When Seth is hired as a trainee broker and sits in the hectic office learning the ropes, we’re fascinated the way we always are: I admire movies that pause and tell me exactly how things work. There are scenes in which Seth rattles off paragraphs of insider gibberish over the phone; sometimes it sounds like abstract white-boy hip-hop, while other times you surprise yourself by actually understanding what he’s saying, based on the bits and pieces of inside info you’ve picked up.

Ben Younger has an easy way with dialogue, both in and out of the office. The macho pissing contests are inspired by Mamet, of course, but they have a uniquely late-’90s spin: Younger nails the comedy of rich white guys talking like gang-bangers, calling each other “nigga” and “bitch.” The scenes between Seth and Abbie (Nia Long), a secretary at the firm, have an intelligent intimacy; the people in this movie (except when lying on the phone for their living) communicate with a sharp directness — Younger packs a lot into a few words. Best of all, perhaps, are Ben Affleck’s handful of scenes as the firm’s recruiter; Younger obviously had fun rewriting Alec Baldwin’s classic speech in Glengarry, and Affleck, locking in on each sentence like a tailgunner, takes such pleasure in the homage that only a grouch could really object to it as a swipe. (Part of the joke is that Affleck’s character knows it’s a swipe, as does everyone else in the room.)

As he proved in Saving Private Ryan and subUrbia, Giovanni Ribisi is an interesting, low-key presence; you never catch him acting, or trying too hard for our approval. That’s why the subplot involving his distant dad, with its facile attendant psychobabble about Seth’s childhood bike accident, is a bit of a bummer. Ribisi doesn’t seem the type to care what his dad or anyone else thinks, and in at least one scene, when Seth falls apart in front of his father, the actor falters. Despite Ron Rifkin’s crisp, entertaining performance as the father, I would’ve liked to see more scenes between Seth and Abbie, or between Seth and his two competing father figures at the firm, Greg and Chris (Vin Diesel), who squabble over his loyalty.

In the end, of course, Seth sees the error of his ways; the movie pauses every so often to put a human face on those on the other end of Seth’s manipulations, and we feel a twinge of shame because we’ve been enjoying Seth’s games and scams. There’s one classic scene in which Seth, by now an experienced hustler, bullies a telemarketer into making a better sales pitch to him. That’s the real triumph of Boiler Room: It catches us taking pleasure in these scams that destroy lives, then shows us the human cost — yet still doesn’t deny that when these guys are hot and on a roll, they’re riding a high better than anything else they’ve experienced. Money is almost just a perk: it’s really about the flamboyant theater of closing the deal.

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