Boilermaker

Boilermaker

Boilermaker

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Feb. 18 2000 9:30 PM

Boilermaker

Rap-style pacing and Ben Affleck's winning smugness pump up the melodrama in Boiler Room. 

Boiler Room
Directed by
Ben Younger
New Line Cinema

The Whole Nine Yards
Directed by Jonathan Lynn
Warner Bros.

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The overture to Boiler Room seems calculated to invoke the phrase "barbarians at the gate": It shows the white yuppie tribe at its most scarily primitive. Twentysomething men in similar suits and haircuts burst through the doors of a Manhattan hotel issuing warlike cries and waving fists full of bills. They're "big swinging dicks": They have rap music in their blood and heads full of hustler patter from David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987). The film's 27-year-old writer-director, Ben Younger, induces their rhythms and their testosterone-charged worldview, and he makes their raw, animal power mesmerizing: We're appalled by these huns, but we can't take our eyes off them.

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The movie's protagonist, 19-year-old Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), is among them, but he's not whooping: He looks dopey, glassy-eyed. Seth has begun to realize that this non-Wall Street brokerage, J.T. Marlin, isn't J.P. Morgan. How he or anyone else could go 10 minutes without figuring that out is the movie's most fantastic notion, but Younger's point is that these kids don't want to know. They've been assured that if they go balls-out making cold calls to gullible investors that before they're 30 they'll own Ferraris and mansions and more toys than they can use. "Everyone is looking for the quick killing," says Seth, who opens the film by informing us that Microsoft employs more millionaire secretaries than any company on earth: staffers who took stock options in lieu of bonuses. That's certainly the way to get under the skin of this longtime free-lance Microsoft scribe, but I'll bet most people will feel a stab of envy when they hear of groundskeepers posing beside their Ferraris. Younger is banking on the audience's stinging awareness of how many people in this market are making unfathomable amounts of money and spending it boisterously. "Nobody wants to work for it anymore," says his protagonist, irrefutably.

By the end of the first hour, in which Seth recounts his path from running a business—an illegal gambling parlor out of his Queens house—to becoming a trainee and then a broker at J.T. Marlin, the film has lost its unharnessed amorality and settled into a conventional redemption tale: good vs. evil duking it out in the soul of an essentially well-meaning young man. But if Boiler Room isn't an especially challenging movie, it's still a damn good melodrama—a boilermaker. The pacing is what puts it over. The director studs the film with numbers by Notorious B.I.G., A Tribe Called Quest, Lords of the Underground, and many others; and he and his editor, Chris Peppe, are grandmasters of the jump-cut: They give the action a hard, hip-hop syntax. The picture is told like a rap, and since these white boys talk and act like gangstas (well, gangstas out of Mamet), the rhythms of the movie complete them. They're high on the illusion of mastery, and we're swept along even as we cringe.

The sequences on the main floor of J.T. Marlin—the boiler room—are shot in a weird, blue-and-white palette; they look as if they've been processed in Clorox. The idea is to make the place seem cold and soulless, but the frigid tones don't really track with the handheld camera and the feverish jabber. The idea is a bust, but it doesn't wreck the scenes, which are small masterpieces of Mamety bile. Seth's first mentor, Greg (Nicky Katt), actually invokes the Glengarry dictum "ABC—Always Be Selling" and also intones the Mamet-like command "Don't pitch the bitch"—i.e., attempt to sell stock to women, who are either too skeptical or too needy. "Get 'em wet," says Greg of the marks. "You're selling a dream." The spiels revolve around companies on the verge of patenting revolutionary new drugs or pieces of surgical equipment—breakout products that send stocks into the stratosphere. And they're amazing pieces of rhetoric: seductive, wheedling, shaming, mixing chumminess and contempt. One broker, Chris (Vin Diesel), puts a potential client on the speaker when he thinks he's on the brink of a sale, so that his colleagues can admire the final parry and thrust. They cheer like the crowd at a bullfight.

Chris is one of the movie's most convincing characters, in part because Diesel is such a charismatic lug (the voice is dark, lubricous, almost Wagnerian), and in part because Chris isn't good, he isn't evil, he's just going with the flow. He can't explain to Seth why J.T. Marlin's "rips" (the percentage of the sale the brokers keep) are four times larger than the rips at any Wall Street firm—but he can't account for why he still lives with his mom, either. He's oblivious to everything but his bank account. There's something childlike about these men, who live to acquire but have no idea how to manage their mother lode. In the evening, they gather at the huge house of Jim Young (Ben Affleck), the company's recruiter, and the living room is furnished only with a leather sofa and a big screen TV and stereo. What do they watch? Wall Street. They have all the lines of Gekko (Michael Douglas) down cold.

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Affleck might be this generation's Michael Douglas, and he's Boiler Room's trump card. An icon to a hip breed of young white moviegoer, he's the actor's equivalent of the broker who got rich quick: no great talent but with infinite shades of cunning. He wears his stardom well—he knows how to make his "I'm handsomer than you are" smugness winning. And he looks like a man who gets laid a lot. (Sure, Ben, who'd want to settle for just Gwyneth Paltrow?) The recruiting monologues that Younger has written would be gorgeous anyway ("You say money can't buy happiness? Look at the smile on myface"), but with Affleck detonating those lines they're just about irresistible. He finishes each speech by saying, "Don't waste my fuckin' time" and then strides purposefully out of the room—and since he's the movie's biggest star by miles, you really believe his time is too valuable to waste on these greenhorns.

With his dour baby face and the bags under his eyes, Ribisi resembles a brooding toddler, older than his years. He's a marvelously thoughtful actor—he seems to weigh his words even as they're flying out of his mouth. His romance with the firm's African-American receptionist (Nia Long) doesn't have the piquancy we might hope for (she's so nurturing that there's no tension), but Ribisi conveys how desperately the seemingly unflappable Seth needs to share his feelings of vulnerability. The core of the film is his conflict with his father, a curtly dismissive judge (Ron Rifkin) who's always poised to disown him. (It's like having Judge Wapner for a dad.) The construction of their scenes is familiar, but the writing and acting aren't, and when Seth finally breaks down and weeps for his father's help, the sounds that come out of his mouth are strangled and sniveling, like those of a lost child.

The judge is a more complex figure than the lefty saint dad (Martin Sheen) of Wall Street, but he serves a similar melodramatic function: to hector his boy into doing the right thing. But that makes the resolution too easy. The scary thing about modern American society is how many fathers (and mothers) want their sons (and daughters) to be successful whatever the cost: They regard not getting rich as a sign of moral weakness. Boiler Room could use more shades of gray. Younger makes the firm's illegalities so clear-cut (a "boiler room" is the term for a scam stock outfit) that it's a wonder the FBI takes as long as it does to come sniffing. The movie would have had more unsettling resonances if it had explored the ways in which J.T. Marlin and J.P. Morgan overlap. Younger suggests that the current market makes it easier to perpetrate scams, but he doesn't take the next step and ask what this gung-ho gambling mentality is doing to almost everyone in this country. Maybe he has too much money in the market.

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T he moral ground is shakier in The Whole Nine Yards, a second-rate but bearable black comedy about a hysterical Montreal dentist (Matthew Perry) whose next-door neighbor turns out to be a contract killer called Jimmy the Tulip (Bruce Willis). The movie gets some good, Tarantino-like comic mileage out of hit men matter-of-factly talking shop and swapping stories, and Amanda Peet is wonderful as a wide-eyed apprentice killer who'll happily doff her clothes to distract someone about to be riddled with bullets. But the direction, by Jonathan Lynn, is too limp to carry us past the fact that every emotion—from the jumpy hero's passion for the hit man's dishy wife (Natasha Henstridge) to the sudden conviction of Willis' cohort (Michael Clarke Duncan) that the dentist must die—is arbitrary and opportunistic. It will be interesting to see if the flyweight The Whole Nine Yards, which had a big national sneak preview last weekend, will get better reviews than the deeply emotional (and near-classic) Gun Shy, which has been all but buried. It's possible that critics—and audiences—prefer their black comedies without guts. 

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.