The other day, I was talking to a colleague about the concept of the
"kickstand." Basically, a "kickstand" is when a filmmaker props up his
movie on the reputation of another, similar movie, directly naming the
influence so as to avoid being accused of ripping it off. Writer-director
Ben Younger may have poise and confidence, and his debut film Boiler
Room may be chock-full of hard-boiled attitude, but he's not so tough
that he can't employ a kickstand. In fact, he employs two.
Early in Boiler Room, the film's narrator--a
college-dropout-cum-stockbroker-trainee named Seth, played by Giovanni
Ribisi--is being schooled in how to close a deal over the phone by his
supervisor Greg, played by Nicky Katt. Before Greg launches into his
"Always Be Closing" spiel (which Younger lifted from David Mamet's
Glengarry Glen Ross), he says to Seth, "You've seen Glengarry
Glen Ross, right?" Kickstand one. A few scenes later, Seth is hanging
out with Greg and his other superiors at the brokerage firm of JT
Marlin--including Ben Affleck as the firm's recruiter and Vin Diesel as top
salesman Chris--and just when the "greed is good" vibe can't seem any more
reminiscent of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Younger has the
characters actually watch Wall Street and recite Michael Douglas'
lines right along with him. Kickstand two.
Presto--any complaint that Younger's film is just a mishmash of Mamet
and Stone has been answered. And the answer is...sure it is. Luckily,
Younger has a little to add to the licks he's copped. Boiler Room is
about that Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? feeling currently fouling
the air. When the film opens, Seth is running speakeasy blackjack tables
out of his house. An old friend comes to the game with Greg, and the two of
them encourage Seth to interview at JT Marlin; he agrees, as impressed by
their hot cars as the idea of honest work.
And as it happens, the work at JT Marlin is not that honest anyway. Seth
soon learns that the brokerage runs on the hot air of ballsy blowhards, who
misrepresent themselves and the stocks they sell to unsuspecting rubes. In
voice-over, Seth compares the trading of worthless stocks to the sale of
crack cocaine, a metaphor that Younger pushes through the use of gangsta
rap on the soundtrack and the street slang employed by the brokers.
Given our current national obsession with wealth, it would be tempting
to say that Younger has his finger on the pulse of contemporary society,
particularly the young and greedy. This would be a mistake. The references
to hip-hop culture and gambling are clever and relevant, but otherwise
Boiler Room lacks any real insight into the modern world. It's
mostly about the chatter.
The real power generator for Boiler Room is the hungry cast,
whose members rip into Younger's "Corinthian Mamet" dialogue with gripping
intensity. Even Affleck seems to be having a gas firing up his broker
posse. The enthusiasm is infectious. Still, the more Younger shows his baby
brokers haranguing would-be customers over the phone, the more apparent it
becomes that in the real world, even the most desperate investor would hang
up on these abusive clowns.
In one of the film's cornerstone moments, Affleck explains that JT
Marlin's motto is "Act as if," which means that if his protgs act as if
they're real wheelers and dealers, they'll convince their clients and
themselves. Ben Younger "acts as if" he's a big-shot filmmaker with decades
of experience, and though what he's selling is phony, the pitch is, for a
while, quite convincing.