Friday, April 10, 2015

Echoes of Wall Street

There is no shortage of films about the crass greed of stockbrokers and others who make their living selling. The broker is often depicted as manipulative, dishonest and successful, or naive, ambitious and willing to sell his soul. Rarely is he a tortured, unwilling Faust, as portrayed by Giovanni Ribisi in Boiler Room.

I read an article years ago, that said that Microsoft employs more millionaire secretaries than any other company in the world. They took stock options over Christmas bonuses. It was a good move. I remember there was this picture, of one of their groundskeepers next to his Ferrari. Blew my mind. You see s**t like that, and it just plants seeds, makes you think it’s possible, even easy.

Director/writer Ben Younger set out to answer the questions the movie’s tag line poses, “Where would you turn? How far would you go? How hard will you fall?” He introduces Seth Davis (Ribisi) as a sharp, smart, entreprenurial type desperate to win the approval of his hard-nosed father, a federal judge (sternly played by Ron Rifkin). Judge Davis is furious with Sethnot for dropping out of college, but for lying to his family about it for six months. He confronts Seth at a rare appearance at the family table, angry that his son is running an illegal casino. turn on the TV, and there’s just more of it. The 87-million-dollar lottery winner, that kid actor who just made 20 million on his last movie, that Internet stock that shot through the roof—you could have made millions if you had just gotten in early, and that’s exactly what I wanted to do: get in. I didn’t want to be an innovator any more, I just wanted to make the quick and easy buck, I just wanted in. The Notorious B-I-G said it best: “Either you’re slingin’ crack-rock, or you’ve got a wicked jump-shot.” Nobody wants to work for it anymore. There’s no honor in taking that after-school job at Mickey Dee’s, honor’s in the dollar, kid. So I went the white-boy way of slinging crack-rock; I became a stockbroker.

This tug-of-war between father and son is the pivot upon which the story turns. When Seth is offered a chance to become a stockbroker, he accepts. He even closes his casino, despite the fact that he has turned the actual work of running it over to someone else. His pride in his new job leads him to announce it, through the intermediary services of his mother, to his father. 

But before he can relax on his success in this lucrative new employment, Seth begins to feel tiny ethical tremors. He reads a stack of IPO prospectuses, and notices that they “all have the same names” associated with the investment. He comes back to the boiler-room sales floor late at night, and spots the SEC watch-dog carefully shredding page after page of documents. He notices the firm’s CEO, Michael Brantley (Tom Everett Scott*), walking into an abandoned building across from the firm’s parking lot. When he follows, he learns that his company is ready, phones, facilities and people, to move to another location at a moment’s notice, “if things get too hot.”

We can see that this inner conflict is ripping Seth apart. Unlike other brokers at his company, who seem content to acquire "bling or blow", Seth’s drive is for approval. He befriends the company’s receptionist, not realizing that she is cooperating with the FBI in their investigation of the firm. He molds himself after another senior broker, Chris Varick (Vin Diesel) in an attempt to get recognition from his own team leader, Greg Weinstein (Nicky Katt). But the tiny tremors are growing in strength, especially after Seth discovers that the latest “hot IPO offer” is for stock in a company that doesn’t exist.

The quake that brings down Seth’s world wraps the young man, his father, and the bilked public (represented by a single investor client of Seth’s) in the full force of an FBI sting. Even though we know, from the initial scenes of the movie which show the triumphant Brantley rewarding Chris Varick for “getting the firm through the late unpleasantness,” that the truly guilty will not be punished, the film still has the power to hold us in its thrilling grip.

Boiler Room is aware of its progenitors; allusions to Wall Street and Glengarry GlenRoss abound. In one scene, in fact, the newly-hired trainees are invited to a party at Weinstein’s empty mansion. Seth arrives to find the senior brokers clustered around a hugh wide-screen TV showing scenes from Wall Street, with brokers reciting whole chunks of the dialog, word-for-word. (Weinstein, appropriately, chooses the Mike Douglas/Gordon Gekko character to emulate; Chris Varick voices Charlie Sheen/Bud Fox.) The theme of Glengarry GlenRoss, in which the salesmen themselves are cheated by their firm, is reduced to a mere suggestion here, but it’s delivered in the line, “Remember Glengarry GlenRoss? This [stock] is ‘Glen Ross’.

Ben Affleck does an wonderful turn solidifying the stock image of the sales-weasel. As chief broker and sales director Jim Young, he tells the newly-hired trainees:
…there is no such thing as a no-sale call. A sale is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock or he sells you a reason he can’t. Either way, a sale is made, the only question is—who is gonna close? You or him? Now be relentless…” And, “There’s an important phrase that we use here, and I think it’s time that you all learned it. ‘Act. As. If.’ You understand what that means? Act as if you are the f***ing President of this firm. Act as if you got a nine-inch c*ck. Okay? Act as if.

It is only when Seth finally learns to stop selling himself the lie and act as if ethics matter more than accolades, that he earns the approval he craves. Despite the escape of the sales weasels, and the brutally vulgar language, this makes for a thoroughly satisfying finale.

* Scott played the drummer in That Thing You Do—ironically, in that film, Scott replaced Ribisi in the band.