Friday, April 4, 2014

Film Friday: Boiler Room (2000)

You’ve probably never heard of this film. Few people have, but it’s an excellent film. It’s got a strong (soon-to-be famous) cast, a topical story, a strong, sharp, colorful script and a driving pace. Also, we lament formula, but this one is anything but formula. Oh, and it has Vin Diesel before he was famous.


At its core, Boiler Room is the story of Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a 19-year-old failure who operates an unlicensed casino in his own apartment. He has a horrible relationship with his father (Ron Rifkin), a federal judge in New York City, bad judgment and bad choice in friends. One night, however, he gets an opportunity to turn his life around. Into his little casino stumbles a stock broker from the brokerage firm of J.T. Marlin, and this guy is flashing cash like you wouldn’t believe. He tells Seth to come work for J.T. Marlin. It begins.
The next hour or so involves Seth being immersed in this world of J.T. Marlin. Marlin is a “chop shop,” a brokerage firm which plays in the “over the counter” / bridge financing world (i.e. the penny stock market). These guys run a cold calling telemarketing brokerage operation in which they do their best to trick and manipulate people into buying the stock of companies you’ve never heard of on the basis that these companies just issued IPOs. And if that isn’t bad enough, this firm is even worse than the rest in a way I won’t reveal. Anyways, Seth is taught to lie, to break the law, and be utterly heartless. Of course, things eventually go wrong for Seth.
Why This Film Works

This is a surprisingly strong film. It suffers from the occasional amateur mistake, like an obnoxious soundtrack early in the film and some over-the-top characterizations here and there, but all told this film produces both a fascinating tale and an emotionally satisfying film. Here’s why this film works.
Let’s start with the characters. This is one of those rare films where the characters are real human beings. Not a single character is an archetype. For example, the main villain actually seems like a decent guy, even though he’s stealing from people on a massive scale. Ben Affleck is in this too. He’s a piece of sh*t. Man do you hate him. But then you see him at his house with the guys and he seems like a fun guy who cares about his friends. And so on.

Seth himself is very complex. He seems like a good guy and you’re sure he’ll do the right thing. But then he’s also not that smart and it takes him awhile to realize that the things going on around him are wrong. But by the time he realizes this and he wants out, he also finds that the respectability he’s gained from his father for having become a successful broker makes quitting impossible for him. But then he loses that and he needs to find a solution to his problems. But his innate stupidity and poor judgment arise again and he flails about as he simply can’t figure out a good way out.
Vin Diesel plays another fascinating character. Does he know what they are really doing? The film doesn’t say that he does or he doesn’t. He kind of knows some things, but does he know the full truth? We don’t know. But in the meantime, we are presented with one of the most likable guys in the film even as he’s doing things we know are really questionable. But he does have a heart of gold ultimately, right? Are you sure? I love the fact that even when the film is over, you still can’t really explain his character definitively, yet you know you would have liked him if you met him.

Speaking of Diesel, he first got spotted in Saving Private Ryan in 1998. He first became famous in 2001 when both Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious hit theaters. He made this film at the same time he made Pitch Black in 2000 before he hit it big, and he already shows a tremendous amount of acting skill and charisma in the film. Seeing his early performance here alone is worth catching the film.
The film is also full of little lines that crystallize so much of what is going on, the characters, the nature of the firm, etc. For example, when the film opens, Seth tells us that people like him get rich with a jump shot or “slinging crack rock,” only he doesn’t have a good jump shot and he’s not black so he can’t sell crack, so he decides to do the white boy version of selling crack... white collar crime. When we see Affleck’s house, Seth tells us, “These guys had all the money in the world, but no idea what to do with it,” and it’s hilarious to see a huge mansion with only one couch and a big screen TV inside... but it feels real. It makes you feel like you really know these guys inside and out. This isn’t just some silly cliché like giving your hero a classic car or talking about what kind of drinks he likes. You see these guys talk about money when they obviously have no idea what it really means, they quote the whole movie Wall Street and hero worship Gekko, they compare themselves to real brokers, and they lose a verbal beat down with a gay guy they thought would be an easy target. All of this tells you exactly who these guy want to see themselves as and how far away from that they really are.
The second thing that works is that like Glengarry Glenn Ross or Wall Street, this film pulls back the curtain and lets you see how the scam works from the inside. When you are done with this film, you feel like you actually learned what it’s like to have worked in one of these environments. As an aside, Boiler Room is inspired by the true story of Jordan Belfort and the firm of Stratton Oakmont, which has now been made into the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, so there is a good deal of truth here. Indeed, the director interviewed many of those brokers before he wrote the script.
Third, the other thing which works is the subplot of the relationship between Seth and his father. Usually, this feels like filler to me, but here it really weaves so well with Seth’s character that it’s indispensible. His father is a turd. You see fathers like this all the time, fathers who think that anger and disdain will toughen up their sons. And you see the consequence in Seth. Seth is trying desperately to please his father but has no idea how. So he does stupid things, which only makes everything worse. His bad decisions then spiral out of control, and the ones he’s making in this film are huge. But in the process of it all swirling down the drain, there is a sort of reconciliation which is actually pretty powerful. More importantly though, it gives this film its heart, which it would not have gotten from the stock story alone. It is in the father-son story that you get to see the real Seth and where you can see Seth doing his best to do the right thing despite never really knowing how. It also helps you understand why it’s not so easy for many people to say, “Hey, I should just call the cops.”

I highly recommend this film. It’s not the slickest film nor does it have the highest production values. This won’t be confused with either Glengarry Glenn Ross or Wall Street, but it compares favorably in my opinion. It’s a strong film that immerses you in a very real world you will not see anywhere else and it takes you on a wild ride that is worth taking. It has complex characters, each packed with tragic flaws, and a storyline that will more than hold your attention.



Tennessee Jed said...

I have seen this film twice, and agree it is well done and worthwhile. In particular, I think it was really the first time I had seen some of these guys. It was certainly the first time I had seen Ribisi, at least in a significant role.

In particular, I enjoyed the way they depicted bringing the new recruits in and building the camraderie. Interestingly, shortly after seeing the film, I got a call from a New York boiler room. I told them to "f" off :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think they handle that really well, how you see them build them into basically a little gang and build them up and tell them how they are something special, all the while making them super competitive with each other. It's really fascinating to watch.

I was very impressed with the cast. There isn't really a weak link.

BTW, apparently, a lot of people thought David Mamet wrote it because the dialog is so strong. But he didn't.

Smart move telling them to take a hike!

Tennessee Jed said...

it has been quite a while since I've seen it, but I don't recall getting a sense of "Mamet" in the dialogue. I do have the DVD since it is the kind of "under the radar" film that has always appealed more than the blockbuster. Mamet tended to be recognizable to me because of a kind of staccato-esque style of dialog. While I don't really recall that being the case, it is always fun to go back after a review from yourself to see if it was stylistically that similar.

Anonymous said...

But Andrew, you're a conservative! How can you like a movie that portrays people who work with money in a bad light? Don't you know these are all honest, hard-working Americans and if they're forced to lie, cheat, and steal, it's because of Obama?!?!


Having said that, I've never seen this film but I remember when it was released, mainly because of the "Hey, it's those guys from Private Ryan!" headlines. The film comes up now and then in good conversations: "Hey, what's a good, over-looked movie?"

I'll have to see it one day.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think it's a natural comparison. It's a film about things going wrong at a telemarketing "Wall Street" stock brokerage firm where the guys are hyper-competitive. So naturally, all the critics compared it to "Wall Street" and "Glengary Glenn Ross." And there are a lot of similarities to both films. Affleck's character is Alec Baldwin. Ribisi's character is very similar to Bud Fox.

In that process, you already have a connection to Mamet through the GGR comparison. Then you add in snappy, fast dialog that feels realistic rather than film-like, and suddenly you have a lot of critics comparing it openly to Mamet.

I don't think it quite fits Mamet's style in many ways, but I think a comparison at least is appropriate.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, This film gives off zero political message. This isn't an attack on capitalism or Wall Street or anything. This is a film about a firm that engages in fraud way off Wall Street. In fact, there is a constant theme that Seth should be on Wall Street in a respectable job. So anyone who sees a political message here is really reaching.

In any event, this an excellent film and you should see it.

Anonymous said...

I was joking. :-)

And you're right, I should. Ironically, I almost Redboxed Wolf of Wall Street this morning but I'm not in the mood for a 3-hour film right now.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It's getting hard to tell these days with so many people out there seeing hidden messages in everything!

I'm actually not interested in Wolf. I may check it out eventually, but from what I've seen it's all flash and no substance.

Tennessee Jed said...

I agree, Andrew. I think the subject is definitely one Mamet might have tackled, and my comment was more addressing the fact that he has a very identifiable style of dialog (staccato rapid fire) that I didn't recall in Boiler Room.

Kit said...


Sounds like a good movie.

Rustbelt said...

"the dialogue is so strong"

Ugh. I don't know why, but every time I hear that, I cringe. I guess I lump the phrase into one of several categories:

-Slang-a-plenty (Ed Wood)
-How many f-bombs can I drop? (Scorcese and Tarantino)
-Pop culture references til it hurts (Tarantino and Whedon)
-Every exchange has a punchline (Whedon)
-Blatantly and often uncomfortable sexual innuendo (Whedon)
-Well, I think that's the way people talk (Lucas)
(I couldn't think of a good example with an overflow of technical jargon, but it's out there)

I don't know why, but every time I hear that phrase "strong dialogue," I immediately think of lines that sound like they were written ahead of time and will remind me continuously that I'm watching a film and will be unable to just enjoy it.
Maybe this is the journalist in me (where the writing mantra is "simple and conversational so the audience can follow along"), but I would be fine with basic dialogue that sounds like real people talking with an occasional really good line here and there. (Ex: "Jaws," "The Empire Strikes Back," "Patton," "The Godfather," "Firefox," "The Hunt for Red October," "Ghostbusters," etc.)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Agreed. It doesn't sound like Mamet, but it has a punchy style.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, It is. I recommend seeing it.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, I agree with you that when most critics say "strong dialog" they just mean lots of swearing and very, very, very cliched lines.

But when I say it, I mean (1) it sounds like real people actually in the situation they are in. I mean the kind of dialog that holds your interest as if you were in the conversation yourself ... no fluff, no phony speeches, no over-the-top dramatizations, nothing that reeks of filler or speeches, etc. and (2) Each character has a distinctive way of speaking, so it doesn't sound like you are listening to the writer feed you their own voice through different characters. This is something I do think Mamet is guilty of.

PikeBishop said...

One weakness I find in this film is the inasanely hot Nia Long's character does nothing except wait around in an office full of young, virile guys until the main character asks her out.

A common cliché in movies is the hot girl, who just doesn't happenen to have the "boyfriend" that we all know they must be issued at birth, in real life.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I don't really have any problem with her because she's kind of trapped under the influence of Greg, and Seth is the first to simply ignore that and actually approach her.

Koshcat said...

It's been awhile since I saw it but I agree was much better than I expected.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, Same here. I didn't expect anything at all and I was very impressed.

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