America is the land of opportunity, and now more than ever, the opportunity that most Americans are preoccupied with is that of easy money. Our news media is saturated with stories of the instant millionaire, 25-year-old startup CEOs worth nine figures or the crafty investor that bought that startup on IPO and doesn’t have to worry too much about his day job anymore either. There are a number of powerful cautionary tales waiting to be drawn from this unwholesome frenzy. Boiler Room tries to tell one of these stories, but sadly it fails to add much to the greed genre established by its two heavily referenced predecessors: Wall Street (1987) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1992).
Boiler Room is the story of Seth (Ribisi), a 19-year-old college dropout obsessed with the American dream of easy money. After concluding rather quickly that college isn’t necessarily the fast track to a quick buck, he opens up an underground casino out of his house in Queens, providing a popular service for the local city college kids. After his disapproving father (Rifkin) finds out about the casino, Seth, feeling a repressed need to gain his father’s approval, looks into an opportunity to become a stockbroker at the small firm of J.T. Marlin.
As it turns out, the firm, located in the heart of Long Island, conspicuously far from Wall Street, is a ‘chop shop,’ shorthand for a brokerage house more interested in pawning off securities for its own interests rather than serving its customers. When Seth’s father discovers this, not only does Seth not find the approval he was hoping for, but he is excommunicated from the family.
Though he has only a minor part in the film, Ben Affleck is highlighted in trailers for the film, and the discerning observer will notice a strong similarity between his scene in the trailer, and Alec Baldwin’s immortalized portrayal of a real estate shark in Glengarry Glen Ross. In fact, Affleck’s big scene draws heavily on Baldwin’s, though his performance (and the material he has to work with) does not live up to what is almost universally agreed upon as the best performance of Baldwin’s career. This is not the only referencing of David Mamet’s portrayal of the dark world of real estate cold-calling in this movie, however. Later in the film, when receiving some instructions on how to cold-call potential customers, Seth is told to remember one of Baldwin’s catch phrases from that scene, ‘A-B-C. Always Be Closing.’ Boiler Room also liberally references, both directly and indirectly, its direct predecessor in the ‘greed is good’ category of filmmaking. Not only drawing its basic theme and plot structure from Wall Street, Boiler Room also draws its best dialogue during a scene in which a number of young stock brokers sitting in one of their sparely decorated mansions, compete with each other to quote lines from Wall Street, whose antagonist, Gordon Gecko, is obviously regarded as an idol within the group.
As a movie, Boiler Room is moderately entertaining. Vin Diesel in particular, off a strong turn in Saving Private Ryan, turns in another powerful performance as Chris, one of Seth’s mentors at J.T. Marlin. Sadly though, Ben Younger, in his writing and directorial debut, adds very little to the filmic pantheon in his own voice. Even the film’s most prolific statement on the American obsession with getting rich, ‘either you’re slinging crack rock or you’ve got a wicked jump shot,’ is a quote of the rap star Notorious B.I.G. The most admirable outcome of this film might be that it leads viewers to check out its two predecessors. I would urge the same as well.
Always be closing.