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Tucson Weekly Billionaire Boys Flub

The Amateurish 'Boiler Room' Is A High-Risk Entertainment Investment.

By James DiGiovanna

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  Most movies end with a disclaimer, something to the effect of "This film is a work of fiction and any similarity between any actual persons, events or institutions is purely coincidental." In a defeatist move that implies foreknowledge of the fact that few would stay to the end, Boiler Room begins with that disclaimer. Actually, I think they put the disclaimer up front to make it seem like Boiler Room would be so hard-hitting and realistic that the average moviegoer would have a hard time distinguishing it from reality. Guess again.

In this strangely amateurish "thriller," Giovanni Ribisi plays Seth, a young ne'er-do-well who quits his job as the owner and operator of an illegal gambling parlor in order to try something sleazier, i.e., working in the stock market.

Mostly, though, young Seth just wants his father to love him. Which is just so powerfully realistic. It seems that Seth's one memory of childhood is of the time he got his training wheels off and immediately broke his leg. His father rushed up to him and slapped him on the face, probably so Seth would have something to talk about when he's trying to seem sensitive while picking up chicks.

Seth's dad, played by veteran second-string character actor Ron Rifkin, is a federal court judge, so we should be overwhelmed by the irony of finding out that he is very judgmental. As a result, Seth can never do right by him. While Seth is basically a harmless rapscallion or scalawag, his father sees him as a rogue or even a blackguard.

When dad finds out that Seth is a successful entrepreneur in the field of games of chance, he disowns him, sending Seth into a teary voice-over monologue. Seth thus sets out to rehabilitate himself in his father's eyes by signing up with "chop-shop" brokerage firm J.T. Marlin.

J.T. Marlin is basically a late '90s variant on the real-estate scam operation from Glengarry Glenn Ross, with Ben Affleck doing his damnedest to act the Alec Baldwin part from that movie. When the swipes from Glengarry become too obvious for anyone to ignore, one of the characters asks another, "Did you ever see Glengarry Glenn Ross?" as though overtly referencing that movie makes stealing from it OK.

When the script starts to run short on Glengarry references, they switch to Wall Street. When that gets a little obvious, there's a scene with all the brokers watching a videotape of Wall Street while reciting the dialogue Rocky Horror style. It's kind of a schmaltz-imitating-schmaltz moment.

Although the sap factor runs high, there are some thoughtful elements to Boiler Room. The brokers' homes are devoid of decoration, the brokers' suits are standard mobster issue, the brokers use the same deadpan tone whether they're discussing stock futures or romantic relationships.

There's also a lot of racial and ethnic stereotyping, something that Quentin Tarantino seems to have made cool. The brokers are either uptight Jews or violent Italians. When the Italian brokers meet up with a gang of rival brokers, they act like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and go out of their way to take offense and start a fight. There is something amusing about watching guys in business suits beat the snot out of each other, but there's also something depressing about the way Italians are always portrayed as hoodlums, even when they really are (semi-) legitimate businessman.

When Seth discovers how illegitimate the seemingly legitimate business is, he's put in a conundrum: he's just won his father's respect, and suddenly he's being busted by the F.B.I. and asked to turn state's evidence. Of course, this finally brings about the teary scene where dad explains why he hit Seth on the day of the bicycle accident, but by this point the movie had lost all of its charm.

It's a shame to see an actor who's as talented as Ribisi stuck in this kind of mediocrity, which is made more amateurish by the incredibly crappy cinematography. There are uneven handheld shots that appear to be accidents rather than stylistic elements, and the whole thing has the grainy look of 16mm film that's been blown up to 35.

Blame should be placed on first-time writer/director Ben Younger, who was fortunate enough to know a number of people in the movie business, and unfortunate enough to have what is essentially a student film released to a wide audience. No doubt the success of such tyro efforts as Blair Witch Project and Spanking the Monkey has created a more open market for directors-in-training, but Boiler Room is the dark underside of this openness: rather than wait for someone to get a little seasoning, distributors are leaping on half-assed efforts in the hopes of finding the next mega-hit. While Boiler Room's bathetic sensibility and faux-hard-edged dialogue has the soulless and calculating sensibility of a Hollywood-manufactured hit, it lacks the polish that makes that kind of thing at least watchable.


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