BOILER ROOM

Written and directed by Ben Younger

With Giovanni Ribisi, Nia Long, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt and Ron Rifkin

***



Frankly, the world of sales and marketing scares me. While I'd like to claim that I'm reacting only out of idealism, the truth of the matter is that I'm completely inept in that world. When I took a part-time job as a telemarketer in 1989, I got fired on my second day.  BOILER ROOM's expert depiction of this milieu is a quick reminder of everything that disgusts and threatens me most about it. It's refreshing to see a film so focused on the workplace, since it's exactly the area of our lives most "entertainment" is designed to make us forget, and as far as I can judge, Younger has quite a grasp on its tensions. Unfortunately, he's not content  to draw only on real experience; as well as the first half of BOILER ROOM goes down, it   eventually gets trapped by needless subplots and references to forebears like  Oliver Stone's WALL STREET and David Mamet's GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.

A college drop-out living on his own in  Queens, Seth Davis (Ribisi) operates a relatively successful illegal casino out of his apartment. He's always had a difficult relationship with his father Marty (Rifkin), a federal judge. This condition is only exacerbated by Marty's discovery of his criminal activities. When a friendly stockbroker drops by the gambling table, Seth jumps at the opportunity to "go legit" with his Long Island firm. After recruiter Jim Young (Affleck) promises that he'll make a fortune in a few years, Seth's job goes quite well. However, he eventually discovers that the firm is no more legit than his casino  - it rips off clients by investing their money in stock options that  have real worth only on  paper - and runs into legal trouble.

As a description of  a high-pressure environment, BOILER ROOM is so convincing that one almost gets a secondhand testosterone high. Although Younger's direction isn't particularly remarkable, his film's fast place and hard-eged editing drive the jitters home. He gets the profanity-laden materialist rants and joking, alpha-male pecking order and illogical hierarchies all down pat. Seth's relationship with secretary Abby (Long), the only African-American woman in an office of white men,  seems to offer a rare respite from the chaos. One scene  contrasts their pleasant evening of bar conversation with the rowdy night out on the town enjoyed by Seth's colleagues.

This thread, which also brings the jealousy of Abby's ex-boyfriend/Seth's supervisor Greg (Katt) into play, is the most successful of the three that Younger develops. He seems most concerned about the first: the trouble between Seth and Marty, established so early on and brought up so many times that one can see a set-up coming from a mile away. While  some touching moments stem from this subplot, Younger's decision  to blame Seth's problems on the usual paternal inability to express love convincingly feels a little pat. However, he really goes wrong by giving a fair amount of attention to the home life of one of Seth's victims (Taylor Nicholas). Given the film's devotion to Seth's subjectivity, I can understand why Younger might think it necessary to witness  his moral decline from another character's perspective, but the periodic father/son confrontations make this point so much more effectively that the scenes involving Nicholas feel completely out of place.

In a small role, Affleck makes more of an impression than he's ever made before, even though his character is a mirror image of Alec Baldwin's slick managerial ruthlessness  in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Younger knows this. In fact, Jim Young himself knows this, pointing it out by quoting a marketing concept from ROSS. By having his characters talk about WALL STREET and ROSS - they even hold a party to watch the former, whose dialogue some of the brokers have memorized - Younger makes a point about the way people interpret pop culture through the filter of their own values and aspirations, regardless of the artist's intended "message." It's a good point, especially given the prominence in American culture of the kind of  thinking that interprets  all violent cinema or music as a simple call to murder,  but I can't help feeling that it's a self-serving one, deployed to cover up Younger's reliance on references to other films. Still, he's definitely on the right track. I know nothing about his own background - or lack thereof - in marketing, but even if he only knows this world secondhand, he's certainly brought what he knows about it to life.