Testosterone-driven perfection

Boiler Room (15) | Director: Ben Younger | Starring: Giovanni Ribisi Ben Affleck, Ron Rifkin; 119 mins
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The Independent Culture

The Big Picture

Furiously paced and smartly scripted, Boiler Room is a belter, and as much a fable for our times as Wall Street was for the Eighties. The subject remains the same: it's about American greed, and the rise of a particularly unscrupulous breed of moneymaker. Making his feature début, 27-year-old Ben Younger directs with the invigorating urgency of a man with something to say. It feels like a movie he's been dying to make, and he nails scene after scene with absolute conviction. See it and you'll think twice about those dot.com shares you've been chancing your arm on.

At its centre is a story of filial confusion and resentment. Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi) is at loggerheads with his father (Ron Rifkin), a Federal judge who's so demanding you can understand why his son has dropped out of college. That Seth is now running an illegal casino out of his apartment in Queens does nothing to improve relations. Yet he secretly craves the old man's approval, and imagines that a move upmarket into white-collar respectability could be a way to patch things up.

Unfortunately, while the collars may be white, there's nothing remotely respectable about JT Marlin, the Long Island brokerage firm which Seth joins as a trainee. Here, in a shabby, undecorated space known as "the boiler room", young stock jocks bully and badger clients over the phone, selling dodgy shares in return for outrageous commissions. The question is no longer, "who wants to be a millionaire"? - it's "how many times over do you want to be a millionaire"?

At first Seth is a little overawed by this frenzy of huckstering; yet he proves a quick learner, and he's goaded by the Faustian promises of the firm's chief recruiter (Ben Affleck). In a grandstanding address to the trainees, Affleck outlines their future: if they work for JT Marlin, they will be millionaires within three years. They will own mansions and drive Ferraris. And there's no room for conscience in this game, where the motto is: "Anyone who says that money is the root of all evil doesn't fucking have any." The nastiness of the sentiment chimes with the rest of Younger's pointed, viciously funny screenplay.

If it were simply a case of being asked to tut-tut at swaggering young brutes who yell obscenities and pick fights in bars, the film would be of limited interest. But Younger is also fascinated by what he flays, and presents brokering as a kind of macho contact sport practised by pitbulls-in-suits for up to 18 hours a day; he gets us right inside the insanely competitive atmosphere of the boiler room, a compound of fear, testosterone and massive exhilaration.

Edited to a jumpy rhythm and overlaid by a rap score, the film hustles us along, as if we too had to pick up information as quickly as Seth. "Don't pitch the bitch" is shorthand for never selling stock to women (too unreliable); "ABC" stands for "Always Be Closing" (the deal), a motto borrowed from a favourite movie among the brokers, Glengarry Glen Ross. Their other touchstone, of course, is Wall Street, chunks of which they can quote verbatim. When Seth is brusquely told, "that suit's shit - get a new one", one is reminded of Michael Douglas talking to Charlie Sheen when they meet for lunch at "21". Like gangsters, they've got to look fly, and they've got to be prepared to use their fists when bluebloods from JP Morgan throw out taunts. As Seth, Ribisi is required to make a transition from mercenary disciple to money god without alienating the audience: "Do you know how good it feels to sell someone?" he asks, like one who believes that gulling people is his true vocation.

Yet Ribisi's pale face and dark, haunted eyes suggest a heart beneath the hard sell, and his later scenes with his father are convincingly anguished. In a strong supporting cast Affleck comes through memorably as a junior Gekko - the shellshocked look of his new recruits after he delivers his opening spiel ("Your friends are shit") is priceless; Vin Diesel (a co-star of Ribisi's in Saving Private Ryan) swaggers more like a prize fighter than a senior broker (and, incongruously, still lives with his mother), and Nicky Katt is a near-platonic model of jealousy and unpleasantness. As Seth's father, Rifkin does a masterclass in character acting: he conveys a lifetime of expecting the worst of people, even his own son, to the point where his snappish cynicism has become a kind of shield against the world. Like Wall Street, the film is essentially a cautionary tale, though the implications here feel even more alarming than Oliver Stone's. Gordon Gekko, it will be remembered, was a raider who targeted vulnerable companies; thousands of people may have lost their jobs, but it was still a battle between businesses. In Boiler Room, on the other hand, it's individuals who get stiffed, and life savings that get wiped out. It's about the kind of swindle that could be perpetrated on any of us. In this regard the fate of a family man (Taylor Nichols) whom Seth has taken to the cleaners, becomes significant in the film's last quarter: we're thrust up close to the human cost of his rapacious salesmanship. If the film has a fault it's the suddenness of the ending - just when we're braced for a big showdown the screen goes black and the credits roll. Huh? Perhaps Ben Younger wanted to leave us dangling: after all, in every other aspect of this tremendous début he appears to know exactly what he's doing.