Boiler Room [DVD]
Screenplay : Ben Younger
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Giovanni Ribisi (Seth Davis), Nia Long (Abby), Ben Affleck (Jim Young), Vin Diesel (Chris), Tom Everett Scott (Michael), Ron Rifkin (Marty Davis), Nicky Katt (Greg), Scott Caan (Richie), Taylor Nichols (Harry)
Ben Younger's "Boiler Room" is about a small-time crook who tries to go legit, but ends up unwittingly becoming a big-time crook. It's a capitalistic cautionary tale about the dangers of the new American Dream in the era of "Who Wants to Be A Millionare" and Internet stocks going through the roof overnight: trying to get too rich too quick.
Giovanni Ribisi stars as Seth Davis, a college drop-out who runs a backdoor casino out of his Brooklyn apartment. It's a small-time operation that is populated mostly by Brooklyn College students looking for something to do between classes. Seth runs it like a business, complete with employees and payroll, and although it is an illegal operation, the most damage it causes is perhaps enticing students to gamble away some of their tuition money.
Seth's father (Ron Rifkin), a tough-love New York judge, almost disowns his son because he is so ashamed of his under-the-table business practices. So, in an effort to please his father, Seth attempts to go legit by becoming a stock broker in a small, fiery firm called J.T. Marlin, which is hidden away in a business district on Long Island, an hour's drive from Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange (the first of many bad signs).
J.T. Marlin is populated almost exclusively by twenty-something hotshots who make far too much money. Their hedonistic lives are characterized as much by excess as they are by emptiness. The perfect symbol of their lifestyle is one character's enormous mansion that is almost completely barren of furniture. He has the money to buy the house, but he has neither the time nor the inclination to turn it into a home.
All these young brokers drive Ferraris, wear $2,000 Italian suits, snort cocaine, and constantly attempt to one-up each other in an endless parade of macho posing. The level of intensity is set early on when the head recruiter, Jim Young (Ben Affleck), delivers an obsenity-laced speech to the new recruits about how, if they work hard, they will become millionaires within three years working at J.T. Marlin. It's not that they will have the opportunity to become millionaires; they simply will.
What most of the brokers don't realize (probably because they don't want to realize it) is that J.T. Marlin's owner, Michael (Tom Everett Scott), is a crook who is using them to push stocks for companies that don't exist. Their brokerage house is a complete sham, but it brings them millions of dollars. As they say, ignorance is bliss ... until the FBI gets involved.
The screenplay, by first-time writer/director Ben Younger, does an interesting job of contrasting two variations of the American Dream. The fast track at J.T. Marlin represents one variation, a kind of claw-your-way-to-the-top economic Darwinism in which those who want the money seek it out and get it at all costs.
Of course, the realization of that American Dream involves the trampling of the old-fashioned American Dream: work hard, save your money, and reap the benefits with time and patience. This lifestyle is represented by Harry (Taylor Nichols), an everyday Joe who is one of the many suckers to buy into the lies spun by J.T. Marlin through the brokers' high-pressure sales calls. Harry ends up investing his family's entire savings, thinking that he will become a part of that upper echelon. Of course, it crashes in on him because J.T. Marlin isn't selling the American Dream. They sell a mirage that disappears when you get too close.
Writer/director Younger has a firm grasp of filmmaking techniques, and he keeps the pace constantly hurtling forward, aided by visual tricks like jump cutting and a hip-hop-heavy soundtrack. The music seems out of place until you realize that the same hypermasculine, misogynistic attitude that fuels most urban music is the same gas in the engines of these eager brokers. The music is a bridge between street crime and white-collar crime, and in Younger's vision, there is little difference because both destroy innocent people's lives.
"Boiler Room" does have its weaknesses, mostly notable the tortured father-son relationship between Seth and his father. Essentially, one can boil down everything Seth does to a driving desire to please the father who constantly rejects him. This, I suppose, is intended to, at least in some way, separate him from the other brokers, whose greed is purely self-serving. But, it is a labored subplot that resolves itself in all-too-neat fashion.
Younger is obviously well-versed in popular culture, and he realizes that other filmmakers have already tread much of this territory, most notably Oliver Stone in "Wall Street" (1987) and David Mamet in "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992). Younger doesn't fake that he doesn't know this; in fact, he works both movies into his own film. One of the funniest and most telling scenes in the film involves a group of the young brokers drinking beer and watching "Wall Street" on video, quoting the dialogue line-for-line. After all, these twenty-somethings were born and raised on television and movies, and one of the themes Younger brings out most clearly is that the lives they live are pop-culture-infused fantasies. They all want to be Michael Douglas in "Wall Street," and it is this tunnel-vision ambition that blinds them to the criminal reality of their situation.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; Dolby 2.0 Surround
Extras: Commentary by writer/director Ben Younger, producer Jennifer Todd, star Giovanni Ribisi, and composer The Angel; Five deleted scenes, including an alternate ending; Isolated music score with commentary by The Angel; Original theatrical trailer; Cast and crew filmographies; "Script to Screen": Screenplay and storyboards comparison with final film (DVD-ROM only); Complete "Boiler Room" web site (DVD-ROM only)
Distributor: New Line
Video: The anamorphic transfer in the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is gorgeous. The image is nearly flawless, with only a few hints of dirt and a little grain, but no compression artifacts. Colors are deep and rich, and flesh tones appear natural (although many scenes are shot with heavy color filters). Detail level is very high throughout the film, even in the darkest areas of the frame. The transfer also handles contrast well in the night scenes. Overall, a great transfer, which is something that has come to be expected from New Line.
Audio: This is a particularly bass-heavy soundtrack due to the influence of hip hop music on the soundtrack. The 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is crystal clear and handles the bass very well. It's deep and solid, but never too overbearing. The rest of the soundtrack is relegated mostly to the front soundstage with few surround effects or imaging. Dialogue is always clear, even in the loud, hectic office sequences that envelop the viewer in a barrage of shouting and shuffling papers.
Extras: Although "Boiler Room" was not released under its "Platinum Series" banner, New Line has seen fit to equip this disc with a good set of extras, starting with a nice commentary by writer/director Ben Younger, producer Jennifer Todd, star Giovanni Ribisi, and composer The Angel (Younger and Todd were recorded in a session together, while Ribisi and The Angel appear to have been recorded separately and edited in). Younger's comments are by far the most interesting as he is particularly candid about the difficulties of being a first-time director. The disc also features an isolated soundtrack with commentary by The Angel, a female British musician who supplied the soundtrack. Some of the isolated music is worth listening to (take note that the songs are not isolated, only the musical score), and The Angel's commentary is sometimes quite fascinating, especially when she discusses her musical influences (however, she uses some irritating vocal distortions). Most of the deleted scenes (all but one of which are presented in anamorphic widescreen) are really extensions of scenes in the movie, with the exception of the alternate ending that was wisely dropped because it is far too self-consciously ironic in a film that already has enough irony. For those who own a PC with a DVD-ROM player, the disc includes a very nice Script-to-Screen feature that allows you to read the screenplay and look at storyboards while also viewing the film. The DVD-ROM features also include the film's original web site (of course, if you use a Mac, you are, as usual, out of luck with these features).
©2000 James Kendrick