Boiling Down

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Why is it that it is now acceptable to take great films, copy them with a slight twist, and think it's all okay because you vaguely acknowledge the film you ripped off by mentioning it quickly at some point or another in your film? It isn't as if all the films that do this are awful - far from it, but why create a film that will invariably have to be compared to a classic?

It's almost guaranteed not to live up the its inspiration's level, and as such will be remembered as an inferior version, not a good film in its own right. This fate is one which The Boiler Room suffers. At least the movie has interesting subject matter which is apparently true to life, and that is where is succeeds.

Boiler rooms are brokerages which use somewhat arbitrary leads to sell stock over the phone to middle to upper class people with money to burn. By using pressure and a person's need to support their family and have a retirement, they often can get someone to give over their entire life savings over the course of two phone calls. The stock, for reasons that I won't explain as it would give away the end of the film, inevitably fails, often ruining people's lives and marriages. Sound familiar? David Mamet's brilliant play, which was converted into an excellent movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, was about pretty much the same thing, except it was useless realty that was being sold. The realtors were people who made little money and had little future, had done this their entire lives, and were still dirt broke with no dreams fulfilled. The difference in The Boiler Room is that the brokers are young kids who didn't make it through college and have no future.

Recruited by seemingly honest and upstanding recruiters, with the promise of millions of dollars within years (a promise often fulfilled), they sign on and soon find themselves unwittingly robbing people of their money. And when they do figure it out, they're too attenuated to give it up.

Glengarry Glen Ross was an ensemble drama and a case study, showing you events that presumably would happen every day with everymen - an unusual situation in today's star-driven world. The Boiler Room, unfortunately, wouldn't dare stray away from Hollywood formula, and so we are introduced to the exceptional Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribsi). A college dropout who started an incredibly profitable casino in the downstairs area of his apartment, he seems to have his future mapped out. However, he has a father, Marty (Ron Rifkin), who has constantly disapproved of him and his illicit ways, and since Seth desperately seeks his father's love, he goes out to get a respectable job. With no degree, he isn't exactly Goldman & Sachs material, but come recruiter Jim Young (Ben Affleck) and a job with J. T. Marlin with a guarantee of almost instant success for a young man with talent and ambition. Seth soon signs on and is taught the ropes.

This is the most interesting part of the movie, as Seth learns how to do the hard sell. First time writer/director Ben Younger was apparently recruited for a boiler room job, and while he didn't accept, the idea fascinated him and he researched it and interviewed "countless" numbers of boiler room employees. So presumably, things in real life are about the way they seem in the movie, though with less dramatic flourish I'm sure. Seth is quickly under the leadership of executive partner Greg Feinstein (Nicky Katt), who hails from the same conservative Jewish background as Seth does. Greg explains the ropes of selling stock. We get to hear a bunch of fun catch phrases such as ABC (Always Be Closing), admittedly stolen from Glengarry Glen Ross, and "Don't Pitch the Bitch," meaning don't sell to women as they aren't nearly as easy to con. If you want to learn what a piker, cold-call, and rip are, go see this movie.

Soon Seth has got the moves down and is the star recruit of his class. We get to see him stepping into his office (ducking under his desk to drown out the background noise while on the phone) and claiming he's been in the business for twenty years. Whatever sells. Soon Greg gets jealous with the upstart, his success and the fact that Seth is now allying with Chris (Vin Diesel), another executive partner. To top it off Seth starts dating Abby (Nia Long), the lone secretary in the firm and Greg's old flame. Super-dramatic interoffice conflict ensues (with another nod to Glengarry Glen Ross with Greg and Chris constantly insulting each other's ethnicities, though somehow it just doesn't work). James Caan's son is also an executive partner too; how's that for cool? And Seth's dad knows what he's actually doing and is not happy about it (so he disowns him). Not helping is Seth's inquisitive nature as he slowly starts investigating how exactly the boiler room works, which makes him the perfect target for the feds who have been investigating J.T. Marlin for quite a while.

By the end Seth has, of course, been redeemed in his father's eyes, been complicit in an FBI raid, copied his entire hard drive onto one floppy disk, and redeemed his and Chris's souls by returning one customer's life savings through shenanigans. Not sure what happened to the fifty or sixty other people he ruined. To the film's credit, it doesn't turn into The Firm II and Seth's life is never in danger, nor is his family's. But it isn't quite satisfying either. You can't quite sympathize with the characters because they're not ruining peoples lives just to get by, but to make massive profits. The magnitude of the damage Seth has caused is never really revealed, and Younger never tries to make Seth anything but a sympathetic character. The drama is too heavy and the events too circumstantial to make The Boiler Room seem like an indictment of modern American greed instead of an isolated incident. But the writing is solid and interesting, and it certainly isn't a terrible or even bad film. It's enjoyable, funny, and revealing. But it's only a shadow. Go rent Glengarry Glen Ross if you haven't seen it in a while. I plan to.


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