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'Boiler Room': Hotter Than Blazes

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2000


    'Boiler Room' Giovanni Ribisi plays a high roller headed for a big fall in "Boiler Room." (New Line)
The trade is practiced by posses of very tough, profane young men, who prey together, hang together and fight together. They travel in fast, sleek cars with tinted windows. If you bump into one of them in a bar and an issue of disrespect is broached, count yourself lucky if you're only dragged out back and beaten to a pulp. If they run into another posse, you can bet insults fly fast and violence follows thereafter.

Oh, and one other thing: They are stockbrokers.

That is the thrust of Ben Younger's "Boiler Room," a look at smash-mouth capitalism, which sees the dealers of stocks in the same terms as the dealers in recreational narcotics and argues, furthermore, that they walk the same street, whether it's named Wall or 14th SE. The metaphor is established early when our flawed hero Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) tells us, in one of his frequent voice-over riffs, that the stock market "was the white-boy version of rock-cocaine." In its very texture, the movie pushes this conceit: It is driven forward by a jiggy hip-hop score, an editing rhythm that busts and breaks each way and by the undeniable insouciance of its practitioners.

Ribisi's Seth is smart, particularly good with numbers and motivated by a secret need to please his distant, disapproving father (Ron Rifkin), a federal judge. Seth is too smart for school so he drops out of college and is running a casino in his apartment--good with numbers, remember?--when he meets the slick and rich Greg (Nicky Katt), who cajoles him into coming to work for J.T. Marlin, a Long Island stock brokerage of somewhat dubious reputation.

The one question the movie never answers is: How come they always call at dinner time? But it answers all others as it follows Seth into the boiler room, which is slang for the phone-dense bullpen where "openers" work at scaring up leads for "senior brokers," or closers, who move in for the kill. When you get 40 referrals for your team leader, you get to move up to his level and have the next generation of little people feed you prospects.

"In three years," says Ben Affleck, J.T. Marlin's director of recruiting, "if you do what we say, you will be a millionaire." Affleck--his cameo-like appearance recalls a similar showy turn in "Glengarry Glen Ross" by Alec Baldwin--is such an essay in intimidating concentration you believe him, as do the young men in his charge. What they learn, of course, is that honesty is the worst policy.

In a swaggering atmosphere of bullying, teasing, needling and cursing, the young men gather and channel their aggression, psyching for the conflict ahead. Instructed that there's no such thing as "no sale," only bad openings, they wage war on the unwary, prepped with rebuttals, stratagems and other tricks of the trade, quick to pick up on cues from the fishies on the line.

"Oh, I'm a family man, too," says the quick-witted, definitely unmarried Seth to one poor schlub, "yep, been married six years!" Instant simpatico and from that point on, the only question is will the guy be a mark or an authentic whale, who can be bled and bled and bled?

As a piece of journalism then, "Boiler Room" is first class. It takes you inside and makes you believe you've entered a secret Darwinian world fired by testosterone and greed, locked into its own secret language, its own mores and traditions. There's really only one law: eat or get eaten.

As it turns out, Seth has a talent for this line of work, and quickly he's surpassed those in his class and moved up. But a number of small dramas are playing out simultaneously: Seth's curiosity about the inner workings of J.T. Marlin and why its big boss Michael (Tom Everett Scott) is so generous with his rips (royalties paid the closers); Seth's courtship of the secretary Abby (Nia Long), which engenders the resentment of his mentor, Greg; his friendship with Chris (Vin Diesel, who co-starred with Ribisi in "Saving Private Ryan"); his increasingly thorny relationship with his father; and the FBI's interest in all of them.

First-time writer-director Younger has some trouble keeping all his subplots going and it seems that at least one--I'd vote for the romance--could have been easily cut. But the cast is first rate, including the above named and Taylor Nichols, a veteran of the Whit Stillman films, who plays a sucker who sinks the savings account into a stock offering for a company that doesn't quite exist yet.

It's also clear that Younger has seen the classic Big Money movies of the past two decades--the plot resembles "Wall Street" in many respects--and like Oliver Stone and David Mamet (whose "Glengarry Glen Ross" is another inspiration) he's fascinated by fast talkers, sharks, quick thinkers and big-time takers. Try as he does, he can't quite convince us of the pure evil of these boys. He likes them too much, admires their moves too profoundly.

Of course the secret arc of the film is predictable as it follows Seth's ultimate path toward redemption. He comes to notice the truth of that ancient proclamation, what good does it do a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul? Then he notices that in the boiler room, he's the only one with a soul.

BOILER ROOM (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


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