Like practically all Americans with (meager) holdings on the New York Stock Exchange, I watched in dismay as my stocks plummeted on Friday. Oil prices spiked, which caused the Dow Jones Industrial Average to plunge by almost 400 points, just more than 3% of its total value. The Nasdaq echoed the Dow’s performance, losing 3% of its value as well. The amount of trading was the heaviest the market has seen since March, and the bedlam on both the trading floor and in the offices of the brokerage houses must have been truly remarkable.
In his film Boiler Room (2000), director Ben Younger attempted to capture not only the excitement of the investment brokerage world, but also provide some insight into the characters who inhabit it. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, about as far away from New York City as the fictional firm J.T. Marlin was located. There’s a certain class of suburban white male that romanticizes hip-hop culture but approaches it only in a peripheral sense, and my hometown possessed more than a few such teenagers. I’m not talking about wiggers, who slavishly imitate every outfit, accessory, and mannerism that they perceive as representing black culture and desperately yearn for acceptance from their idols, I’m talking about middle-class white youths who somehow gleaned the notion that inner-city life is infinitely more exiting and rewarding than their own mundane existence, but only experience it through music and movies, and never on a firsthand basis.
The Film: Boiler Room
The Song: “What a Thug About”
The Artist: Beanie Sigel
Who’s Who: The film’s director, Ben Younger, grew up in New York City and first embarked on a career in politics. After an interview with a job in a brokerage firm, he conceived the idea for a film set in an underground investment brokerage house, where the marketing process more closely resembled telemarketing than anything else. Like the artificially inflated stock issues in the film, Boiler Room itself was something of a financial flop, drawing in only $28 million worldwide against a $26 million production budget. Younger’s second effort, Prime (2005), received a weak reception from critics and only became profitable after a successful run overseas. Don’t feel bad for him, though; he’s currently living with actress Vanessa Marcil. Go on with your bad self, Ben.
Boiler Room’s main character Seth Davis is played by Scientology convert Giovanni Ribisi. Ribisi became a familiar face after appearances on the X-Files and Friends, and although his appearances have been scarce lately, he’s appeared as a lesser character in some very fine films in the course of his career, including Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). Ribisi has a distinctive voice that works well for narration, having served as the unseen storyteller in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (2000) and providing extensive voiceovers for Boiler Room as well.
Vin Diesel, who was also seen in Saving Private Ryan with Ribisi, provides another distinctive voice in Boiler Room as Chris, Seth’s friend and effective mentor at the firm. In several sequences that attempt to pay homage to Alec Baldwin’s classic scene in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) Ben Affleck appears as a senior partner who attempts to berate the junior partners into better performances. Nia Long plays the part of the fantasy girlfriend, and Nicky Katt plays the part of Seth’s jealous supervisor.
Featured prominently in the scene below is the firm’s owner, the rarely glimpsed Michael Brantley. The character, played by Tom Everett Scott, is an interesting counterpoint to the rabble at J.T. Marlin because he simply radiates class and charm compared to his uncouth employees. While the character’s background isn’t explored in the slightest, it’s easy to assume that Brantley came from a similar middle-class environment to his workers, but dove into and emerged from an Ivy League business school with plans and aspirations that would never even occur to the junior brokers and hustlers working for him.
Beanie Sigel is a rapper who was born and raised in south Philadelphia and was signed to Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella records in 1998. His debut record, The Truth, which includes “What a Thug About,” was released in 2000 to critical acclaim and commercial success. In addition to a well-publicized feud between Siegel and New York rapper Jadakiss that eventually drew in Styles P and even DMX, Sigel has served various sentences in jail for thug-related activities: weapons charges, failure to pay child support, assault, and drug use. Curiously, Beanie Sigel is Sunni Muslim, and a number of his songs attempt to confront the disconnect between his behavior and his faith.
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/kiNyN-d-PyE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
Why it Works: Beanie Sigel’s song works with this scene for the same reason that all the other songs in this film work — because they’re what the characters would be listening to. We’re watching white, suburban young men throwing down bills on games of craps, men who are have created for themselves a bizarre hybrid of the Wall Street lifestyle and thug life. Younger wisely refrains from engaging in too much heavy-handed satire of this subject, preferring to use these hard-edged rap songs as background, showing the men shooting dice in passing, and only occasionally indulging Jamie Kennedy’s trademark posturing. But Michael Brantley’s announcement that “we’re players now” is a cleverly placed jab at the fundamental difference between the firm’s owner and its employees — Brantley knows exactly what he is aspiring to: entrance into high society and the old money country club scene, while the middle managers and particularly the junior brokers don’t have the slightest clue what their money will bring them other than a bunch of shiny new toys.
What Goes Wrong: Ben Younger’s filmmaking reminds me a lot of the play of the Boston Celtics’ second-year point guard Rajon Rondo. It’s generally solid, and peppered through with occasional moments of brilliance (such as the scene where Seth coaches a fellow telemarketer into a more persuasive attempt to sell him a newspaper subscription, and a nifty exchange between the brokerage boys and some fellow diners in a Manhattan restaurant). But the film is also full of rookie mistakes. In this particular scene, as the music fades and Seth outlines the basics of J.T. Marlin’s ponzi scheme to Abbie, Younger attempts to create some tension by placing his characters in a lumber yard on the Hudson River. The outdoor setting for the conversation implies the fear of some sort of surveillance, though at no point does either character express any concern that their actions or words are being witnessed. It would have made just as much sense to place the characters in bed, or in a restaurant, but Younger tries to exploit the surroundings to inflate the level of tension and it just ends up feeling artificial.
Other Stuff: The anniversary of the death of Enron founder Ken Lay is only a few weeks away (July 5th). The timing of the heart attack that killed him seemed remarkably convenient, because it spared him the ignominy of having to spend the remainder of his life in jail, and it prevented Enron shareholders from recovering punitive damages for the massive fraud that Lay perpetuated. Rumors floated in Houston that Lay had deliberately stopped taking his heart medication and had then jetted off to Colorado in anticipation of the eventual result.