As you grapple with that eternal challenge of selecting a favorite Vin Diesel/ Giovanni Ribisi joint, I encourage you to pass over the more obvious choices (Saving Private Ryan, The Fast and the Furious) in favor of 1999’s stock broker drama: Boiler Room.
(CORRECTION: My editor has just informed me that the character Jesse from The Fast in the Furious that was “good at computers” was not actually played by Giovanni Ribisi)
Director: Ben Younger
Producers: Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd
Writer: Ben Younger
Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak
Editor: Chris Peppe
Music: The Angel
Cast: Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Nia Long, Nicky Kat, Scott Caan, Ben Affleck
Premiere: January 30, 2000 – Sundance
US Release Date: February 18, 2000
US Distributor: New Line Cinema
Boiler Room follows Seth Davis (Ribisi) a college drop-out making a living off an illicit poker ring in his Queens rec-room; when a couple of stockbrokers begin to patron his game, they recognize his potential and encourage him to join their firm as a trainee. Soon he’s up to his ears in cash selling junk stocks over the phone. Vin Diesel plays a senior broker at the firm, showboating and showing the ropes to the new hire, and Ben Affleck takes a very Alec-Baldwin-Always-Be-Closing turn as the firm’s recruiter.
There are a couple of things that make this film excellent. Firstly, it’s enormously self-aware. Besides a character literally referencing Glengarry Glen Ross, one of the film’s best scenes comes in a group of brokers sitting in an empty mansion drinking beers, eating pizza, and quoting Wall Street along with a VHS.
Secondly, the performances are across the board superb. Diesel is as good as any of the best physical actors, moving from a lazy grin into explosive fury at the drop of a hat. Ribisi dials back the performance, excepting a few genuinely emotional moments (the subplot tracing his estranged relations with his father, a judge, is immensely complex and satisfying) giving the veterans space to breathe.
Lastly, the film has aged very well. It’s firmly grounded in a sort of 1990’s New York Hip-Hop aesthetic: Big puffy Tommy Hilfiger coats, boxy New Jack suits, more than a few F-bombs (Notorious B. I. G. is referenced as often as Gordon Gekko), but the aesthetic feels fresh and believable.
It’s interesting to note that as a parable of greed and corruption, Boiler Room feels almost tame (when compared to The Wolf of Wall Street, based on a very similar scenario, it seems quaint). It’s certainly obvious that public expectations have dramatically shifted between 1999 and 2014, and this is no “great recession” film (2010’s Inside Job is still probably the most exemplary of these). Boiler Room is an unheeded warning from the other side of the cataclysm, reminding us again about the inevitable excesses of unchecked greed.