The explosion of films by talented young Americans doesn't show any signs of letting up. "Boiler Room," a first film by 28-year-old New York writer and director Ben Younger, though by no means perfect, has the kind of off-kilter quirkiness we always hope to find in a new filmmaker.
He's written a story about youth and greed that keeps threatening to slide into the enormous hole that was dug by Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" and polished by the film of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross;" but then leaps over the void and finds a new way to treat it. The film is the story of Seth (Giovanni Ribisi in a quirky piece of casting), a young Jewish Queens College dropout and prosperous proprietor of an illegal 24-hour casino in his apartment. But under pressure to quit from his federal-judge father (Ron Rifkin), whom he has never been able to please, he joins J.T. Marlin, a stock brokerage that's a boiler-room operation out off of Exit 53 on the Long Island Expressway.
Tiptoeing through the minefield of imitating both previous films, Younger manages to find new ways to illustrate what you might call the need for greed among today's young white boys, who spend their free time pretending to be black, hip-hop gangsta-rappers. They're millionaires without a conscience, because their work is to trap gullible investors by phone, and talk them into buying worthless, even nonexistent stocks; and then taking huge commissions on the sales. And though Seth makes thousands at his casino, he wants to make millions at J.T. Marlin.
Younger is not quite secure enough, or original enough as a filmmaker, to avoid the traps of imitation completely. On the one hand he's brought Ben Affleck in to reprise Alec Baldwin's role in "Glengarry Glen Ross" as the brutal, bullying company trainer, and we watch Affleck's scenes with plenty of deja vu.
On the other hand, he's cast the unearthly Ribisi as his lead and the bullet-headed Vin Diesel, who reminds us of a young Erich Von Stroheim, as his closest friend at the brokerage. One of the film's strongest elements is the transformation of Ribisi's mild, thoughtful young man into an arrogant, lying, viciously manipulative crook stealing money from his victims. The discontinuity between Ribisi's looks and his powerful new voice and actions is extraordinarily compelling. Along with Diesel, the two make an unlikely but successful pair on screen.
Younger isn't always that good, though. He gives us the beginning of a tentative affair between Seth and the firm's black receptionist Abby (Nia Long), who has an unseen daughter and a mother who must be taken care of, but then ends up using her only to trigger a deus ex machina finale involving the FBI and a redemptive action by Seth.
What does work in the film, though, is a jagged, unexpected structure, edited as though through a prism, where he lets events and their meaning accumulate without strict regard for timelines and sequence, through a series of moments observed and discarded as soon as they make their points. In this all-male world, people comment snottily on each others' clothes; they watch "Wall Street" at Affleck's mansion (and recite the dialogue along with the film), a mansion furnished only with a tanning booth, a sofa, and a big-screen TV, and his Ferrari parked outside; and they fight over their commissions like ten-year-olds playing musical chairs. Younger has found a way to paper over the inherent unbelievability of such a firm by focusing on the men who work there, rather than on any larger meanings. He's also dealt with the ongoing love-hate relationship between father and son in a way that skirts caricature but thanks to good acting remains moving and valid. We will look forward to Younger's next film.