We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
You can’t accuse 27-year-old writer-director Ben Younger of underhandedness. He couldn’t be more upfront about the movies that inspired his feature debut, Boiler Room, a turbulent expose of the dark side of high-pressure stock trading. Younger not only includes an excerpt from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, but has his characters parroting Stone’s dialogue as they watch the film at a drunken party. He explicitly credits the brokerage acronym ABC (always be closing) to its source, Glengarry Glen Ross, and bases an obscenity-filled motivational monologue on a speech delivered by Alec Baldwin in the screen version of David Mamet’s play.
What Younger lacks in originality, he more than compensates for with energy and smarts. For its first hour, Boiler Room (the title refers to sub rosa hard-sell telephone brokerage firms staffed by young men out to earn quick big money) is free of the thumping didacticism of Stone’s movie as well as the verbosity of Mamet’s play. Propelled by hyperkinetic camerawork, frantic montage, and a throbbing hiphop score, Boiler Room moves as swiftly as the stock market on a bullish day, until Younger’s confidence falters and he resorts to some sententious profit-taking.
Giovanni Ribisi plays 19-year-old Seth Davis, a Queens College dropout. He’s earning a good living by running an illegal gambling casino in his Kew Gardens apartment—an enterprise that rankles his father (Ron Rifkin), a judge with whom he has an uneasy relationship. To appease his dad’s demands that he turn legit, Seth follows a Ferrari-driving client’s tip and signs up for an internship program with J.T. Martin, a Long Island boiler-room operation run and staffed by avaricious 20-somethings. If he survives the tough, exploitative training program, he’s assured, he will become a millionaire within three years.
Seth’s superiors and peers are a grossly materialistic lot, a cross between drunken fraternity louts and members of a neo-fascist youth cadre. They work and play rough, and, as Seth observes early on, they have all the money in the world but no idea how to spend it. As the brightest member of his intern group, Seth swiftly jumps through all of Martin’s apprenticeship hoops, completes his broker certification course, and strikes up a relationship with the firm’s knockout receptionist, Abby (Nia Long). But once he starts asking questions about the stock issues that the company promotes, he realizes that he’s involved in a nefarious scam that makes his apartment casino seem comparatively kosher. Seth’s guilty conscience about financially ruining his customers, his increasingly troubled dealings with his father, and the possibility of a Fed sting of the Martin operation precipitate the film’s climax.
The Martin recruitment speech, effectively delivered by Ben Affleck but without the sulfurous intensity of Baldwin’s Glengarry harangue, sets the tone for Boiler Room’s skateboard pace and blunt language. The monologue outlines the rules of the game (“Don’t pitch the bitch,” i.e., don’t sell to women) and defines its argot (“cold-call,” “RIP,” “whale,” “wood”). Younger’s brisk overlapping dialogue abounds with racist, sexist, and homophobic zingers, the razor-edged repartee of young dudes careening down the capitalist expressway. Their barbs aren’t as malicious as they would seem out of context: they’re merely the crude verbal currency of these macho spawns of Reaganism who can’t figure out anything to do with their lives beyond making money.
Around the film’s midpoint, Younger loses confidence in his audience’s perspicacity and begins erecting unnecessary ethical guideposts. The cheesy Arthur Miller-ish father-and-son conflict yields an excess of tiresome, unpersuasive moralizing, including scenes in which parent and child each risk their own welfare for one another. Seth’s late-blooming remorse about selling worthless stock to a nerdish young family man is also rather hard to swallow, given the way he blithely picked his fellow students’ pockets in his gambling operation. The movie lets him off the hook improbably easily—and concludes just as its most dramatic scene is about to occur.
Boiler Room’s young cast is uniformly impressive. Although top-billed Ribisi lacks the looks and physique of a screen heartthrob, he possesses more estimable qualities—sensitivity and originality. Anne Stuhler’s production designs, especially for the boiler-room set, are remarkably accomplished in a modestly budgeted film. Enrique Chediak’s camerawork, however, is distractingly uneven. In a climactic staircase scene between Seth and his sympathetic colleague, Chris (Vin Diesel), the focus changes from hard-edged to blurry. Come to think of it, so does the film itself, which, despite its shortcomings, is well worth seeing.
Jonathan Lynn’s The Whole Nine Yards is doomed by the end of its second scene: Unhappily married dentist Oz Oseransky (wan, puffy, sputtering Matthew Perry) endures a morning verbal assault from his spiteful, greedy wife, Sophie (Rosanna Arquette, overacting in an obnoxiously fake Quebecois accent and looking like a malevolent rabbit). Then he escapes to his car, where, in frustration, he pounds his head against the steering wheel. By the time he pulls over at the end of the driveway for a second round of head-banging, chances are you’ll be eyeing the theater exit.
Mitchell Kapner’s screenplay recasts Prizzi’s Honor as violent, knockabout farce. Both Oz and his new next-door neighbor, hit man Jimmy “the Tulip” Tudeski (Bruce Willis), are Americans hiding out in Canada—Oz from the scandals caused by his now-deceased larcenous, pedophilic father-in-law; Jimmy, a cold-blooded but strangely moralistic executioner, from the Chicago crime family that he’s ratted on. The two become targets of complicated murder-for-hire schemes involving, among others, vengeful mobsters and their own wives. The comic potential of this material remains unrealized, owing to Lynn’s slack pacing, Tom Lewis’ amateurish editing (littered with blatant continuity errors), and David Franco’s drab camerawork, which makes Montreal look as uninviting as Des Moines.
Nevertheless, for a movie oozing flop sweat—even its generic title is forgettable—The Whole Nine Yards offers some compensatory pleasures. Easily the best of these is Amanda Peet’s delicious turn as Jill, Oz’s spunky receptionist, who dreams of becoming a contract killer. Peet awakens and illuminates every shot in which she appears. She’s beautiful, with a sleek figure, smooth, tawny skin, a cascade of gleaming auburn hair, dark flashing eyes, and an irresistible smile. But blond, statuesque Natasha Henstridge, who plays Jimmy’s wife, is beautiful, too, without making more than an amiable impression. What virtually guarantees stardom for Peet is her unselfconscious vivaciousness, her sheer delight in giving herself to the camera. It’s unlikely that anyone could sit through this movie without looking forward to seeing more of her.
Casting off his smirking, superhero persona, leathery Willis recovers some of the laconic charm he displayed on Moonlighting, and muscular Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile) is merrily menacing as a hulking gangster with shifting loyalties. Despite its flatness, Kapner’s screenplay contains a dozen or so solid laughs—some verbal and some physical—topped by an exquisitely timed fart gag. Stephanie Biddle, a little-known Canadian jazz singer, sounds and looks terrific performing “Autumn Leaves” in a nightclub sequence. Stick around for the closing credits to watch and hear this vocalist’s elegant performance of the Gershwin standard “They All Laughed.” CP