Boiler Room, a low-key film that was released a month before the Nasdaq crashed in March of 2000, might just be a better Wolf of Wall Street than The Wolf of Wall Street.
Giovanni Ribisi plays Seth Davis, a young college dropout who runs an illegal casino out of his apartment in Queens. When his father, Marty Davis, a federal judge who’s afraid the casino might jeopardize his own position on the bench, and whose approval his son desperately craves, orders him to shut it down, Seth gets a job as a trainee stockbroker at a Long Island “chop shop” named J.T. Marlin.
A shady firm specializing in “pump and dump” stock scams, which, according to Wikipedia, “involves artificially inflating the price of an owned stock through false and misleading positive statements, in order to sell the cheaply purchased stock at a higher price,” J.T. Marlin is the proverbial fire to the casino’s frying pan. After an orientation session with Jim Young, Ben Affleck doing his best impression of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, Seth Davis comes under the wing of two senior brokers, Chris Varick, a sympathetic Vin Diesel, and Greg Weinstein, a somewhat less than sympathetic Nicky Katt. Davis, who’s charismatic and quick witted, quickly excels, passing his Series 7 exam, and picking up his first 40 sales before any of the other trainees in his group. He also attracts the attention of Abbie Halpert, Nia Long, the only woman, and the only African American in the office. She works as J.T. Marlin’s 80,000/yr secretary, seems immediately attracted to Seth, and has just ended a bad office romance with Greg Weinstein.
Before long Seth realizes something’s not right about J.T. Marlin. The same quick-witted instincts that make him a natural salesman also make him naturally suspicious. He notices that all the investors on each prospectus have exactly the same names. He visits the store front of a medical supply company J.T. Marlin promotes, and realizes that there is no medical supply company, just a vacant building. He accidentally discovers that the company’s president is building a shadow office where he can relocate after Marlin inevitably tanks. He feels guilty after he pressures Harry, the buyer for a Midwestern gourmet supermarket, played by the perennial Wit Stillman favorite Taylor Nichols, into spending the down payment on his house for stock in yet another bogus corporation.
Meanwhile, the FBI has taken an interest in J.T. Marlin. They start to lean on Abbie. They bug Judge Marty Davis’ phone. Finally, they arrest Seth, threaten Marty’s judgeship, and bully the young man into turning state’s evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Seth agrees to go into work one last day, grab a copy of the client book, and download the contents of his hard drive into a floppy disk. As an aside, even in 2000, the typical hard drive would take a hell of a lot more than one floppy disk to copy. But that’s a minor scriptwriting error, and the FBI’s plan comes off without a hitch. Seth gets them the information they want. The final scene shows a long line of squad cars filing into the J.T. Marlin building to make arrests.
It’s a thoroughly underwhelming ending to a good movie. We don’t get to see any of the brokers put into handcuffs. We don’t get to see any kind of reconciliation between Seth and his father. But that’s not the point. The point is how Seth discovers that he’s not a sociopath at all. Indeed, rather than let his father, who’s never shown him much love, lose his judgeship, he’s willing to risk jail. What’s more, Harry, Seth’s dupe, becomes the focus of the story, not the brokers. Indeed, most of the brokers at J.T. Marlin aren’t sociopaths or even particularly bad people, just callow young men willing to look the other way at ethnics violations in exchange for money and material possessions. Seth’s not. He’s genuinely remorseful over the idea that he may have ruined Harry’s marriage, and spends the rest of the movie trying to make good, to get one of the senior brokers to sign off on a buy order that will let him recover the money he lost. He succeeds. Harry, we presume, gets his money back and reconciles with his wife. Seth, we hope, has finally earned his father’s respect.
As a final note, Giovanni Ribisi and Nia Long, both excellent in their portrayals of two young New Yorkers involved in a thoroughly believable interracial relationship, seem to have disappeared from the public view. The mediocre Ben Affleck is now a superstar. Maybe we need more well-written, low-key movies like Boiler Room for good actors like Ribisi and Long to display their talents. Vin Diesel also turns in a surprisingly understated, and effective performance as Ribisi’s surrogate father figure. He’s a macho jerk, yes, but a macho jerk who seems willing to let the younger man in on the fun. He almost makes us see the appeal of working for a sleazy chop shop in Nassau County. We can imagine ourselves in his place.
In the end, there are no irredeemable villains in Boiler Room, just flawed, materialistic Americans who, for reasons as different as they are as individuals, are willing to steal from other flawed, materialistic Americans.