It's the day before Christmas, the coldest day the city has seen all winter, but Ben Younger is smiling madly as he walks along Bedford Avenue in his striped hat and down parka, taking in the hipsters headed for used-record stores and the Italian grandmothers in skirts and nude stockings gossiping out on their stoops. After nine months in Los Angeles, he couldn't be happier to be back at the Brooklyn diner where he used to hang out all the time, installed at a table next to a leaky radiator.
"It really does suck out there," he says, staring at a man who is earnestly studying a book of Rorschach tests. "I mean, L.A. just sucks." This despite the fact that Younger had gone west to edit his first film, Boiler Room, starring Giovanni Ribisi and Ben Affleck, which he also wrote and directed. He finished the screenplay a year ago while he was still a waiter at Steak Frites. Before that, he worked as a grip on music videos and movies. Before that, he managed the State Assembly campaign for Queens Democrat Melinda Katz (she won). Before that, he was a policy analyst for the New York City comptroller's office and a legislative aide to Alan Hevesi. Before that, he was a stand-up comedian. He is 27 years old.
Boiler Room, which previews at Sundance later this month, is the story of a tough, smart Jewish kid who tries to ride the bull market out of Queens -- an aspiring stockbroker who discovers that there is still no such thing as free money. In Hollywood, the movie is generating the kind of advance buzz rarely enjoyed by first-time writer-directors; waiting for a friend at a bar shortly after he got to Hollywood, Younger overheard two agents discussing his script in overheated tones. He found it a bit creepy.
Though he had fun learning to surf and cruising through the canyons on the BMW motorcycle Affleck bought him, Younger says he was "fucking miserable" in Los Angeles, where he'd been just once before. He missed riding the subway, hanging at his apartment in Greenpoint, just walking around. And it was weird being addressed as Mr. Younger, or, as Harry Hamlin's manager trilled upon approaching him at one Hollywood party, Ben "Boiler Room" Younger.
"L.A. is a town where you're truly judged simply based on what you do, so your self-image becomes blurred," he says, taking a sip of hot chocolate. "People are like, 'Oh, you're Jewish, so that probably helps a lot.' But even though everyone out there is Jewish, they might as well not be, because there's no real feeling of heritage or culture. It's just extreme assimilation."
"In America today, everyone thinks it's possible to become a millionaire," says Younger. Nobody thinks, I'm gonna work for it. And what gives you the right to think that you're gonna be a millionaire without having some incredible idea? I mean, you have to be an innovator."
Being Jewish comes up a lot with Younger, a former yeshiva boy who grew up in a Modern Orthodox family. In terms of religious devotion, Younger rates his family about a six on a scale of one to ten, "one being you, ten being the Lubavitcher rebbe." And while he declines to place himself on this makeshift Jew-ometer, his religion has always been a significant part of his identity. He learned how to fight when his parents moved the family to Eltingville in Staten Island and he was the only Jewish kid in the neighborhood.
After his parents split up, Younger shuttled between his mom's place in New Jersey and his dad's in Flatbush. He went to Queens College and started doing a stand-up routine around town, but he had to stop when his dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. Younger was 19 at the time. "After that, I couldn't be funny anymore," he says. "The year he was dying, we became very close -- suddenly, all those walls you couldn't get through? They get broken down. Dealing with that changed everything. If my dad died in a car crash, I would not be sitting here today."
Supremely self-assured and prone to hip-hop-speak, the director, in person, is not unlike Seth, the 19-year-old protagonist of Boiler Room. As much as Younger loves Woody Allen -- his next movie, he says, will be an homage to Annie Hall -- he's had it with the conventional Hollywood portrait of neurotic and neutered Jewish males. "I'm sick of that; it's tired," he says with a laugh. "It's true, but it's tired. I've known some tough Jewish guys; I mean, I watched my dad beat the shit out of a guy on Coney Island Avenue for cutting him off in the car.
"We've all seen the sensitive schlep," he adds. "But what's interesting to me is a combination of the two: It's not like there's one reality and either you're Vinnie Goombatz or you're Woody Allen. Seth is a tough kid, but he's emotional, not oblivious."
Giovanni Ribisi is at his most quietly beguiling playing Seth as a thoughtful hustler, always watching, thinking, figuring out the angles, never quite at peace in his surroundings. "Giovanni's a very intellectual guy," says Younger. "If something was just a little off, he knew. There was no 'Oh, it's just a movie.' He spent three twelve-hour days with my brother checking out boiler rooms."
When the movie begins, Seth is running an underground casino out of his living room in Queens, making a pretty good living providing guys from the neighborhood with a little illicit excitement. But his father, a judge, is disgusted by this life, and, desperate to gain his approval, Seth determines to go legit.
One night, Greg (Nicky Katt) comes in and loses a wad of money at Seth's blackjack table, but he doesn't really mind. He turns out to be a stockbroker, pulling in millions from a dubious Long Island brokerage called J.T. Marlin. It isn't long before Seth is there, too, cold-calling customers and selling them stock over the phone.
Housed in a nondescript cement building off the L.I.E., J.T. Marlin is a world away from J.P. Morgan, but the crude guys from lower-middle-class families who run the operation make up in ambition for what they lack in education. It's a place governed by rules, like "Don't pitch the bitch -- always get the man of the house on the phone," quickly adopted by trainees eager to earn millions by selling suspect stock to gullible marks.
Seth is inducted into this world at a raucous group interview led by Jim Young (Ben Affleck), an updated version of Alec Baldwin's character in Glengarry Glen Ross. Young preaches the capitalist gospel -- "Anyone who tells you money is the root of all evil," he exhorts, "doesn't have any" -- with a fervor that reminds Seth of a Hitler Youth rally.
This scene was born out of an experience Younger had five years ago, when he accompanied an acquaintance employed in a boiler room to just such a meeting. "He was my friend's younger brother, and he was driving a new sports car," says Younger. "This guy tells me, 'Look, you work here for a year, you make your million bucks, go to the Bahamas, and then you can write.' I was like, 'Um, I'll check my book, but I'm pretty sure this fits into the game plan.' " The firm, which was busted a few years later, offered him a job.
But instead of living the life, Younger decided to write about it. "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."