January 31, 2009

Underrated MOTM: Boiler Room (2000)

January's Underrated Movie of the Month harkens back to a time when the markets were strong and the crooks were, well, nobody really cared about the crooks because the markets were strong. Remember, 10 years ago, when the Dow was peaking at all-time highs and the internet bubble hadn't yet popped?

Near the end of this fattened-calf period came Boiler Room, Ben Younger's surprisingly still relevant drama that both glamorized and criminalized the free-wheeling lifestyle of a group of sneaky New Jersey stock brokers at the fictional investment firm JT Marlin. Younger (who has unfortunately done little of significance since Boiler Room) was planning a career in politics until he accompanied a friend to a recruiting session (similar to the one lorded over by Ben Affleck in the film) and came up with an idea for his first screenplay.

In an interview for New York Magazine, Younger, then 27, explained: "I walked in and immediately realized, this is my movie. I mean, you see these kids and you know something is going on. I was expecting guys who went to Dartmouth, but they were all barely out of high school, sitting in a room playing Game Boys. I had already run a campaign at this point, but most of these kids were still working at the gas station," says Younger. "Now it's all over the news, but going back five years ago, day trading, the Internet, none of that existed."

Of course today, almost a decade after the film was released, day traders aren't the newsmakers - despite the astonishing rise of "Playing the Stock Market for Dummies"-type manuals. Indeed we've come full circle, and investment firms and executives are once again the big bad bullies of Wall Street, ironic considering that at least in the public eye, Boiler Room seemed to mark the end of greedy stock brokers as we knew them from the Gordon Gekko-in-Wall Street days. Turns out these wannabe Scrooge McDucks lived the extravagant life right up until credit and credibility ran dry over the last 18 months.

And we were all on our way to early retirement with them, borrowing what we couldn't pay back and making risky investments in search of the highest short-term return we could possibly find. Unfortunately for us (and I loosely use the term; I've never had spare change to play around with), Boiler Room primed a generation of hungry brokers just waiting to hook us up with the "easy money". The dialogue from the movie appears to be ingrained in many of the people on the other end of our phone line, or so it would appear based on memorable quotes popping up in a mortgage broker forum I just happened across (from April of 2008, eerily titled "Lehman Brothers going down soon?").

But does a prescient movie make an underrated one? Not necessarily, but for also featuring a tense and believable screenplay and a remarkably talented young cast, Boiler Room rarely gets the respect it deserves. One of the cool things to do, for example, is criticize it as a rip-off of Wall Street or Glengarry Glen Ross. But on closer examination, with dialogue from those two classics deliberately used and obviously referenced (and in the case of Wall Street, actual clips of the movie shown), it would seem to me that Younger clearly knew his audience and acknowledged their influences. And based on the aforementioned fact that his dialogue is now being used by young brokers, I would argue that his material was plenty original.

One of the best scenes comes about halfway through Boiler Room, when Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) has finally gained enough confidence to shrewdly push a sale on a reluctant buyer (Taylor Nichols). It's uncomfortable and nauseating, mostly because we know how easily and often it happens every day. Observe:

Naturalistic conversations like this permeate the movie and are surprisingly well acted by an eclectic cast that includes Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, Scott Caan, Nia Long, Jamie Kennedy, Ron Rifkin, Tom Everett Scott, and of course Ribisi. How his career has tanked so much in the last five years is a complete mystery to me - can you name his last movie? After a decent 2003 (Cold Mountain, Lost in Translation), he had a bizarre 2004 (Flight of the Phoenix, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) and then...nothing - at least nothing worth mentioning. Hopefully, 2009 will mark a major return for this talented actor. He's currently attached to six projects on IMDb, two of which are among the most anticipated movies of this entire year: Michael Mann's Public Enemies and James Cameron's Avatar.

Ribisi never really blows you away with his acting, but the more you see his work the more you start to appreciate the small things, as is the case with this movie (i.e., the soundtrack). Of course there are missteps here and there, with a meandering father/son storyline and an unnecessarily heroic ending, but on balance Boiler Room is a taut and engaging film that deserves to be appreciated more in the context of our current economic climate.


  1. I was coerced into seeing this film in the theater by my old roommate, and thought I would hate it, but I was greatly surprised. I definitely still clearly remember the scene you picked out without even watching the YouTube of it.

    Excellent review, and you chose many of the salient points I would have lauded as well: pacing, music, mood, dialogue, acting all around. I seem to remember really liking Vin Diesel and Nicky Katt's work in this too, but it looks like a DVD viewing is long overdue in order to re-acquaint myself with the experience. Thanks again for picking this one out!

  2. Thanks! I'd had this on my list for a while, then forgot, then all of a sudden it was on TV a couple times and I decided, yep, it was good enough.

    Thinking about it more, one really should watch this movie only focusing on how the story relates to our current situation. Although I noted that the acting and the other things were solid, if someone is watching this for the first time (or for the first time in a while) they probably won't be that impressed.

    But - if people really digest scenes like the one shown here, I think they'll understand why this deserves some attention at this time.

  3. A couple of things stick out for me in this movie.

    The scene where Ribisi goes over to Ben Affleck's place and there's no furniture to speak of. Just a couch and a TV set. That scene immediately tells us how young they are, how they spend their money and how hard they work. It's a great scene and it's made even better that Younger doesn't feel the need to draw extra attention to it.

    The other scene that sticks with me is the one between Ribisi and his father where Ribisi asks why his father hit him when he fell off his bike. His father explains that he was mad at him for scaring him. For making him care. Being a parent myself, that was pretty powerful.

    I also like this because Vin Diesel shows a glimmer of hope for his career. Too bad it's been downhill for him since then.

  4. Thanks for piping in, Piper. I think Ribisi does have a small voiceover about the furniture, but it all fits together really well and is capped off nicely by their group recitation of the scene from Wall Street. Great scene and nice details, like you mention.

    The father-son relationship was decent enough but seemed a little like it belonged in a different movie. Plus I didn't like that Ribisi has to tell the bike story twice - once to Nia Long and again to his dad. Obviously it's important to him, but I could have just used it the one time. Either way, Ron Rifkin does a great job as the jerk dad.

    And talk about potential in this cast! If Diesel had stuck to roles like this he might have earned a lot more people's respect - instead it's been XXX and Fast and the Furious sequels. Yawn.

    Same with Scott Caan - it's like he can only play tough guys. And where is Nia Long in 2009?!?

    But Ribisi is the biggest factor here and he needs to revive his career. I hope it comes in 2009 with Public Enemies in Avatar. If not, I'm afraid he'll have to start from scratch.

  5. Nope - I'm one of them that thinks it little more than a Wall Street rip-off.

    Not that it's a bad movie - it just didn't say much else to me. Love the Affleck interview scene and Diesel's display of his acting abilities, though.

  6. "thinks it little more than a Wall Street rip-off."

    But still more than one! ;-P

    Man, everytime I hear about one of these Ponzi schemes lately I think about this movie - not that that's what they were doing, but just the idea of trusting your whole life away as happens in the scene above - just to get a little MORE money!


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