The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short are the most notable recent films in the burgeoning “Fuck everybody and everything that was involved in the financial crisis” movie genre. Martin Scorsese’s picture focused more on the debauchery and depravity of 1980s financial douche bros, while The Big Short lionized the quick-witted individuals who had enough foresight to predict the housing market crash. They’re both good movies for their own respective reasons, but if you were to pick just one film that really captures that sense of irresponsibility, greed and gnawing frustration that nothing was done to prevent that the financial collapse, there really isn’t any better film than Boiler Room.
This is interesting, because the misdeeds of Boiler Room’s “stockbrokers” actually wouldn’t have that much of an impact on the world’s financial state. It also takes places in the late 90s, so it has more in common with say the Enron scandal than the housing market crash. Still, it feels fresh and relevant, even though the damage Boiler Room’s brokers caused was on a much scale. All of the clients in Boiler Room got screwed over, but it wasn’t like them losing their life savings would trigger massive unemployment and necessitate a bail out from the government. It was just a select group of lecherous sleazeballs targeting a select group of gullible, wannabe investors, a drop in the bucket compared to the flood of crimes of the major banks.
But Boiler Room’s depiction of misplaced trust, that we believe our supposed mentors and advisors because they speak with confidence and drive a car worth more than our house, better reflects the mentality of the financial collapse than any other movie to date. We all want to believe our colleagues, partners and that the people we call our friends actually have our best interests at heart. We all initially think that people are inherently good, it’s only until they do something to deceive us that our mindset shifts. But that misplaced sense of trust explains how just so many banks were able to buy into the housing market crash, or how so many people were easily duped by Bernie Madoff. In Boiler Room, plenty of people say no to the JT Marlin brokers, probably more than said yes. And even when the brokers go out to get drinks in Manhattan, real bankers at JP Morgan call them out for being bullshitters and con artists. The JT Marlin folks know this is true, that they’re frauds, but they also know they just need to convince a small amount of stupid people to keep adding floors to their Long Beach vacation home.
Every character and performance in this movie is wonderful. Vin Diesel, Scott Caan, and Nicky Catt’s brokers each have douche bro elements but are fully fleshed out people. Nia Long is excellent as a receptionist who knows the whole thing’s a sham, but also has a sick mother at home and can’t necessarily follow her morals when her mom needs medicine. And Ben Affleck emulates the ferocity of Alec Baldwin’s iconic “Glengarry Glenn Ross” character, remaining a strong presence in the movie even when he’s not on screen. But easily Giovanni Ribisi is the best of the bunch, a book and street-smart kid who is enticed by the brokers and their promise of free cash, but is constantly at odds with family expectations and tormented by his heinous crimes.
One memorable scene is when the brokers are gathered in a large, multi-bedroom house that is empty for the most part, save for a few boxes and a sofa in a living room. They’re all watching Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, which was originally meant as a warning and a condemnation of greed, but stock bro douchebags took it the wrong way and were inspired by Gordon Gekko when they should have been repulsed. It doesn’t matter Gekko gets arrested at the end, he’s a god to them. Many people will watch Boiler Room and become immensely entertained and irritated at the stock bro douchebags who pray on the unwilling. But there will be a few who look at these guys as heroes, alpha males at the apex of humanity, modern gladiators whose sword and shield are a checkbook and pen. And sadly, there won’t be anything we can do to stop them from trying to rip other people off. All we can do is trust ourselves we’ll be smart enough when they come running after our bank accounts.