The Boiler Room; Wonder Boys; Not One Less

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Boiler Room
Directed by
Ben Younger

seems to have brought out the ethnicity in everyone. Especially–strangely
enough–white boys. The first half of the new film Boiler Room is
charged by the candor of ethnic expression. Its white Jewish narrator Seth Davis
(Giovanni Ribisi) talks frankly about his ambition and greed, using the black
rapper the Notorious B.I.G. as authority and role model. Biggie’s rhyme
about young black men’s limited career options, "crack rock or hook
shot," is adapted by Seth, the newest member in a corps of whiteboy stockbrokers.
It seems young whites like Boiler Room’s writer-director 26-year-old
Ben Younger needed the prodding of black rappers’ ethnic swagger to legitimize
the shameless expression of venality. And though we all know that the circumstances
behind black braggadocio and white arrogance stem from different social influences
and opportunities, the spectacle of unbridled arrogance–and its suggested
connection to social dissent–juices anticipation.

Younger might be a hiphop
head but he needs more of a hiphop heart. Uncommitted to the social challenge
suggested by white-to-black cultural identification, Younger pledges fundamental
allegiance to cutthroat, balls-to-the-wall capitalism. That he has no moral
response to the inequity implied in even the most venal hiphop is apparent from
the affair Seth strikes up with Abby (Nia Long), the brokerage’s black
$80K secretary. This is little more than an infatuation; their exchanges limited
to sex and the sketch Younger provides of Abby’s pathetic home life caring
for her invalid mother. (Long might be New Line’s black Gwyneth, but she
gets little screen time here.) Only Seth’s street style has been influenced
by hiphop; awareness of rap lingo and attitude hasn’t changed his selfish,
privileged, insulated response to the world. He has no political consciousness.
Younger attempts to square that with a half-cynical dramatic tone, representing
the New Century’s immorality.

This is kid-think–the
proven commercial version of moral veracity. It’s a slick justification
of youthful fantasies about entering the adult world. Even before "acting
as-if" by dressing in expensive suits, Seth had quit college to run a profitable,
illegal gambling den out his apartment. Brokering his own innocence for small-scale,
presumably manageable corruption Seth plays out a fantasy hiphop’s drug
tales have frequently exploited (Ice-T’s Rhyme Pays, Geto Boys’
"Mind Playing Tricks on Me," Prince Paul’s A Prince Among
even Public Enemy’s more astute, non-drug saga "Air
Hoodlum"). But instead of reflecting a worldview, Younger demonstrates
movie-struck naivete. The ethical stakes in Boiler Room are as synthetic
as Hollywood formula. Younger has modeled the fast-paced, foxhole miasma of
stock trading after David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross but he particularly
references Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street (Seth and his white-collar
comrades lounge in one’s large, chilly furnished house watching–and
Vin Diesel reciting–a big-screen video of Michael Douglas’/Gordon
Gekko’s shamelessness). It wasn’t just gullible youth who took Wall
seriously; the culture at large accepted its cautionary tale as instruction.
Gekko’s "Greed Is Good" speech was celebrated rather than critiqued–one
of the most shocking lunacies of the 20th century, utter proof of the late moviegoing
public’s lack of sophistication.

Wall Street’s
success also made an unfortunate argument that pop culture has a corruptible
influence. But this was also part of Oliver Stone’s peculiar pop legacy;
like Seth, unscrupulous talent and conflicted ambition have determined his cultural
fate. In a sense Stone was the most influential movie figure of the 80s, for
the way his expose movies (Wall Street and his script for De Palma’s
Scarface) captivated the hiphop generation’s imagination about how
the world worked. Unable to identify with the conventional routes of American
success, they misconstrued Stone’s muckraking to feed their own fantasies.
Their hunger for power heedlessly accepted Stone’s suggestion that all
power was corrupt. This potent social myth, combining Americanism with gangsterism
and youthful naivete, shows in Scarface’s connection to Hype Williams’
Belly as well as Wall Street’s connection to Boiler Room.
When Seth asserts his cojones by protesting, "Hey, I ran a casino!"
Younger is obviously cueing Scorsese and his gangsta oeuvre, but today’s
success mythology has gone beyond that (The Sopranos, with its comic
Goodfellas nostalgia, only appeals to middle-aged folks).

Younger’s hiphop-Hollywood
sensibility, though flashy, seems unreliable after last year’s Office
–a neglected but classic demonstration of the change in America’s
moral and professional spirit. Mike Judge, the working-class satirist, uncannily
recognized the impetus white-collar workers got from gangsta rap. (Somewhere
James Thurber, walkman in his ear, is nodding.) Judge’s surprising juxtaposition
of urban and suburban frustration proved an understanding of hiphop that was
deeper than Younger’s fashionable quasi-appropriation. The difference between
rap and 9-to-5 drudgery seemed a perfect comic expression of working-stiff anxiety–a
liberation fantasy rooted in the fear of American poverty and deprivation. But
Younger is fascinated by the late-20th century phenomenon of quick success and
baby-faced millionaires stuck in moral infancy. He never questions the privilege
Seth takes for granted. He uses hiphop unironically–and, somehow, casting
Ben Affleck as the brokerage’s prime motivator/sleazebag makes the shallow
cynicism of these wannabe Gekkos credible as a truly contemporary, validated
behavior. But what should be Boiler Room’s critique (or its satire)
of white privilege just fritters away, a pale version of Stone’s disillusionment.
The way Younger fancily approximates a 360-degree camera move to show Seth and
his father’s big meeting near City Hall indicates Michael Mann’s pretense
rather than Stone’s acuity. (Crosscutting from Seth to Taylor Nichols as
a scared yuppie investor is also a po-faced, badly conceived indie attempt at

Ribisi plays Seth with the
deceptive open-mouthed puppyness of vengeful nerds but the more interesting
broker is Nicky Katt’s Greg, the mentor who becomes Seth’s rival in
the trading room and Abby’s bed. A dark-haired, dark-eyed shark, Greg provokes
the film’s basic cultural analogy when he regards the boiler room’s
white, Jewish and Italian mix and speaks on the different ethnic means of capitalist
success, decrying his competitors as "nigger rich." It doesn’t
sound like hiphop’s convivial pronunciation of the noun; it’s pure
degradation stated as evocative capitalist fact. And when Greg defends himself
("Because I’m a Jew and I have the mind of a champion"), Younger
rises to the level of aggressive confrontation he initially proposes–seemingly
a tougher and more fearless take than when attending to Seth’s melancholy.
These blunt terms are worthy of hiphop; they evince awareness of racism that
most movies disingenuously ignore or romanticize. Only in these brief moments
does Boiler Room heat up the tension endemic to capitalist aggression,
implying that it sustains ethnic rivalry.

The title Boiler Room
describes a workplace yet it’s meant to define dangerous emotional territory–America’s
inhumane engine. But that would require Younger to examine casual white infatuation
with black expressions of discontent, to reconsider the networks of power from
black ghettoes to Wall Street to Long Island enclaves. He’d have to risk
the self-examination and ethnic humility that Robert Downey Jr. arrived at in
the memorable broker scenes of his witty, soul-searching documentary The
Last Party.
Downey caught the authentic class/ethnic tone of Wall Street
louts hanging out in Battery Park without a hiphop soundtrack’s
flattering, excitable distraction.

The Beach
Directed by Danny
Still, Boiler
is a far more intriguing and honest movie than its competition–Leonardo
DiCaprio’s The Beach. Director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge–both
frauds–express such jejune exasperation with Western capitalism, they surely
could use a few hiphop tunes to catch a clue. Despite hiphop’s global effect,
the international set of wastrels encountered on the halcyon beach have little
attachment to the outside world besides the creature comforts they put on a
shopping list. Leo’s All-American naif exists in a narcissistic bubble
that, apparently, not even Will Smith hits have pierced. A more offensive concept
than Younger’s stockjocks, this new Leo attempts to make glamour out of
clueless disaffection. He may not be confused by cross-cultural, trans-ethnic
pop attitudes as in Boiler Room (Leo just conveniently nods to Third
World dope smuggling), but his simplified sense of his place in the world embarrasses
the solipsism that the worldwide success of hiphop once seemed to remedy.

Just because filmmakers
uses terms like "cipher" (in Leo’s narration) doesn’t mean
their characters are more than ciphers. In The Beach Boyle and Hodge
(working from a novel by Alex Garland) seem intent on not defining anything,
especially psychology or class resentment. The quasi-Lord of the Flies
experiment with social structure gets lost in what looks like travel-brochure
homogeneity of youthful affluence. The closest thing to a moral touchstone is
the subliminal influence of other movies–particularly Apocalypse Now
(which Boyle misreads worse than American kids interpreted Oliver Stone). The
opening scenes of Leo in Bangkok are like Wong Kar-Wai without depth–modernist
dislocation is put on display but alienation never penetrated. Leo’s stardom
seems sufficient unto itself; unlike Seth, he harkens back to nothing, which
is the same exploitation of youthful vanity that Boyle almost got away with
in Trainspotting (#8 on the list of worst 90s films) and that David Fincher’s
Fight Club disguised with special effects and fake pugilistics.

As in Boiler Room,
Generation X’s psychological panic is raised, then dropped. Generation
know-nothing is what’s allegorized in The Beach, but this movie,
in which Leo seeks the one place on Earth with "no ideology," isn’t
even as consistent an analysis as Stephan Elliott’s end-of-civilization
comedy Welcome to Woop Woop. The Beach’s young protagonists
lament the impossibility of finding paradise. In trying to make that foolish
search a meaningful thrill-ride, Boyle and DiCaprio–both out of touch with
the realities hiphop preserve–flub the present-day tensions that keep Boiler
’s instant-wealth drama wound up. Completing the ethnic and cultural
failure that Boiler Room almost makes, The Beach’s allegory
glamorizes hijinks of (mostly) white folks who don’t even recognize their
own fascism and tyranny.

But Goodies. Fly as it feels to watch Younger play his Boiler Room fantasy
against a hiphop backdrop, his revival of some prime De La Soul cuts is a mixed
blessing. While recalling hiphop’s brief, early 90s jubilation, Younger’s
decision to bypass gangsta rap for De La Soul’s more idiosyncratic conundrums
is a more facile than felicitous association. He might be trying to suggest
the particular elitist taste of boiler room stockjocks whom he shows encroaching
on Manhattan watering holes to defy and gloat at the more privileged, but the
great De La Soul seems rather tony for these wannabes (the avaricious and crudely
clannish Wu-Tang Clan would seem a better match). Maybe Younger’s hiphop
fascination isn’t empathic enough–certainly not if it glibly emphasizes
machismo and aggression. As a De La Soul rapper once warned, "Fuck being
hard/Posdnous is complicated!"