We gave it a B
When Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), the conflicted, college-dropout huckster at the center of Boiler Room, goes to work for J.T. Marlin, a sleazy “chop shop” brokerage tucked away in the anonymous environs of suburban Long Island, he’s promised that he’ll be filthy rich within three years, but the appeal of the movie isn’t in seeing him pile up the cash. It’s in being absorbed, right along with Seth, into the frazzled, who-wants-to-be-a-millionaire high of contemporary stock trading. Boiler Room homes in on a raffish young wolf pack of money-besotted cutthroats who are too hungry and impatient to thrive even within the go-go ethics of Wall Street.
All day long, they sit inside a small, cramped boardroom, hawking junk stocks over the phone. Seth has to learn how to exploit a petty gambler’s near-religious logic, which dictates that risk is reality — that not to trade would be to cop out on life. He taps into the wish-fulfillment rhythm of instant wealth, hypnotizing his potential sucker-investors right out of their common sense.
Boiler Room presents these amoral brokers, with their Porsches and their Italian suits, as the rotten fruit of the late ’90s. They’re like frat-boy versions of the con artists in Glengarry Glen Ross crossed with Charlie Sheen in Wall Street. The writer-director, Ben Younger, obviously knows a thing or two about stealing; he lifts major swatches from both of those earlier greed-culture morality plays. Yet Younger, in his debut feature, is as canny as he is derivative. When he introduces a scene with Ben Affleck strutting his stuff as J.T. Marlin’s natty drill-sergeant guru, you know that you’re watching a stand-in for Alec Baldwin in the searing 1992 film version of Glengarry, yet it’s a terrific scene all the same. Younger’s dialogue has its own misanthropic snap and verve, and Affleck’s spiel works on the audience the way it does on the characters — it gets you juiced with money envy.
Ribisi, with his pale face, creepy-sweet Walter Keane puppy eyes, and seductive sense of calm, is the perfect actor to embody a lost young man who numbs himself into a happy zombie by selling financial snake oil. Seth, whose conflicts all grow out of a troubled relationship with his stern, reprimanding, New York-judge father (Ron Rifkin), becomes a broker-in-training, and he gets caught in the bitter tribal rivalry between two senior traders — Greg (Nicky Katt), his backstabbing Jewish mentor, and Chris (Vin Diesel), an Italian who still has a heart beating beneath his public lack of scruples. In one irresistible scene, the Marlin crew all sit around watching a video of Wall Street, except that they barely even bother to look at the screen; instead, they ritualistically recite every line. Boiler Room, for all its blatant borrowings, is a fast and funny look at a world where “greed is good” has become the only reality in town. B