Reviewed by John Wrathall
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
New York, the present. To the disgust of his father, a judge, 19-year-old Seth Davis has dropped out of college. On the recommendation of a friend, he goes for a job at J. T. Marlin, a fly-by-night brokerage firm run by the charismatic Michael. Seth is soon hooked on the thrill of the fast buck and impressed by his millionaire colleagues. He passes his stockbroker's exams and wins his father's grudging respect.
Seth starts to date the receptionist Abby, thereby earning the enmity of his team leader Greg, who's Abby's ex-boyfriend. When Seth discovers one of the medical companies whose stock he has been selling is just a shell, he realises that the whole operation is fraudulent and illegal.
When one of his clients, Harry Reynard, loses his life savings on stock Seth sold him, Seth appeals to his father for help, which he refuses to give. Arrested by the FBI, Seth is played a tape of a phone call in which he discussed a deal with his father. Rather than see his father's career ruined, Seth agrees to testify against J. T. Marlin. Just before the office is raided, Seth uses his sly sales skills to trick Michael into compensating Harry Reynard for the money he lost.
The writing and directing debut of 27-year-old Ben Younger, Boiler Room wears its influences very much on its sleeve. When Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) first goes for a job at J. T. Marlin, he and the other applicants are treated to an inspirational harangue from a recruiter who promises them they'll be millionaires in three years if they can stay the course. Moments later, as if atoning for the extent of his lift from a similar scene with Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, Younger has one of his characters namecheck that film and its author, David Mamet. And before we can say Wall Street, Younger shows us the guys from J. T. Marlin sitting around at home watching a video of Oliver Stone's 1987 film, parroting Gordon Gekko's "Lunch is for wimps" speech word for word. Younger seems to be trying to convince us that it's his characters, rather than himself, who are imitating these films.
However great his debt to Mamet and Stone, Younger certainly succeeds in adding a few phrases of his own to the lexicon of macho sales talk, notably "Don't pitch the bitch," (a J. T. Marlin house rule forbids employees to sell stock to women because supposedly they'll always be calling back and making a fuss). But despite its wealth of relishable dialogue, Younger's script has problems in other departments. Whenever he strays away from self-contained set-piece scenes - Jim Young's (Ben Affleck) harangues as the recruiter; a classic moment when Seth gets a call from a salesman flogging newspaper subscriptions and coaches him on his pitch - Younger falls back on cliché. Seth's paper-thin relationship with the receptionist Abby (Nia Long) is just an excuse to whip up some rivalry with his boss Greg (Nicky Katt), while his yearning to win his father's respect depends on an astonishingly clunky piece of backstory involving the ten-year-old Seth and his new bike.
The awkward structure - opening at a not particularly significant moment half way through the story, then flashing back "three months earlier" - and a rambling voiceover don't help. Both devices seem like last-ditch attempts to inject momentum into the narrative and explain the bewildering financial small print of J. T. Marlin's scam. Or perhaps Younger just wanted to pay Scorsese homage while he was at it.
As director, Younger throws in a couple of montages of people driving around, ostentatiously edited to the hip hop score, but otherwise relies on fuzzily photographed dialogue scenes. He does extract some boisterous performances from his young cast, notably Vin Diesel as Seth's mentor Chris. But Giovanni Ribisi, such a promising supporting actor in Saving Private Ryan as a medic and Friends as Phoebe's dopey brother, doesn't seem a big enough presence for a starring role yet. His emotional breakdown in front of his father is plain embarrassing, and even his sales patter never seems quite slick enough. To convince us that Seth really is the dynamite salesman we need to believe he is, Younger has to fall back on another woeful cliché: the FBI agent listening in to Seth's phone calls and commenting, to no one in particular, "This kid is really good."
- Ben Younger
- Suzanne Todd
- Jennifer Todd
- Ben Younger
- Director of Photography
- Enrique Chediak
- Chris Peppe
- Production Designer
- Anne Stuhler