The unofficial motto of the chop-shop brokerage firm J.T. Marlin, with its twentysomething trainees and Gen-X millionaire mentors, is “Honor is in the dollar.” Part Rat Pack, part Hitler Youth, these all-male brokers are part of the boiler-room subculture that hard-sells dubious stocks to unwitting customers, gets rich on outrageous commissions, and always tries to stay half a step ahead of a federal investigation. In Boiler Room, the 29-year-old first-time writer-director Ben Younger captures the adrenaline-pumped rush of this world, which seems initially like a fantasy land but is probably only slightly exaggerated. Younger was a stand-up comic and worked in New York State politics as a campaign manager and policy analyst before starting out in the movie business as a video cameraman. Researching the sock-it-to-me telemarketing and brokerage-firm underground for this film, he probably figured he hit the high-concept jackpot; and, at least for the film’s first hour or so, he does hit it, repeatedly.
What makes the film such a giddy ride is that Younger doesn’t really separate himself out from the sharkiness on the screen; it’s not an outsider’s view of an insular tribe. Instead, we have the tang of an insider’s take – Younger is caught up in the chase, too. Even toward the end, when the film gets moralistic and remorseful and heavy on the Freud, the dullness doesn’t entirely becloud the glitzy corruption that came before. Younger may want to rack up points for being a humanitarian, but his real juices are elsewhere: in the scrape and bounce of the swindle in all its fine fettle.
Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) is our tour guide through the underbrush: A college dropout who runs his own casino out of his Queens apartment, he is motivated by a fierce desire to win the respect of his unyielding father (Ron Rifkin), a New York judge who sees his son as a flop and a crook. Seth’s entrance into J.T. Marlin is, in a sense, a continuation of his casino operation, a way to score big and be a success in his father’s eyes. Younger sets up this father-son stuff as if he were really saying something, but it reeks of Screenwriting 101: Lock in Your Motivation. What is glaringly obvious is that Seth is drawn to the game because it makes him feel like a player. Seth is in his element when he’s cold-calling a dupe on the phone, scamming the poor soul with stock options for a company that may not even exist. Closing the deal isn’t just an adrenaline rush, it’s testosterone heaven.
Younger plays not only on our avidity for becoming instant millionaires but also on our resentments toward the dot-com culture, with its slicksters spinning around in Ferraris when they seem barely old enough to drive. In one of his periodic somnolent voice-overs, Seth says of his roving pack of brokers, “They had all the money in the world and not a clue what to do with it,” and it’s hilariously true. (The crackerjack crew includes Scott Caan, Vin Diesel, and Jamie Kennedy.) The mansion of one of his mentors is like a garish mausoleum; cooling out after a hard day bilking investors, his cohorts sit around in the TV room watching Oliver Stone’s Wall Street on video and gleefully reciting the dialogue right alongside Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko. Younger gets at the ways in which these guys, not just the chop-shoppers but also, by implication, the big-time brokerage boys, model themselves after their pop-culture stand-ins.
Younger draws a lot from David Mamet in his depictions of this seller’s hothouse, but he does it with a twist: The salesmen here are fully conscious of being Mamet-y; their bible is Alec Baldwin’s big, win-at-all-costs speech from the movie of Glengarry Glen Ross. J.T. Marlin’s head recruiter, played by Ben Affleck, does a series of riffs on Baldwin’s aria, and each one is funnier and crueler than the next. (One ironclad rule is “Don’t pitch the bitch” – don’t sell stock to women.) Stock-selling as it’s practiced here is a contact sport, and the stock jocks, clumped together in bars or on the streets, are as itchy to rumble as any gang. Shimmying before his boiler-room buds, Seth’s nemesis Greg (Nicky Katt) crows, “I am a Jew, I have the mind of a champion,” and it’s both a taunt and a celebration: This guy, like the other chop-shop superstars, does his greatest selling job on himself.
“Do you know how good it is to close someone?” Seth says to us after a particularly spectacular play, and we realize it’s a high he can never really come down from. Once he gets religion, he’s on all the time; even when he receives a call at home from a Daily News subscription telemarketer, he can’t resist teaching the bumbler how to improve his pitch. As the film streaks along, Seth grows increasingly pale, vampirish almost, as if his swindles had drained all his blood away. By the end, he looks positively cadaverous, and yet, in this cutthroat milieu, the look fits. His bone-whiteness is chic evidence of a job well done. He’s chosen the right profession. So has Ben Younger.