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On Leo, Gio and Tobey | The Nation

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On Leo, Gio and Tobey

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No such lapse occurs in Boiler Room. As the characters themselves say, nobody in the picture is as smart or interesting as its protagonist, Seth, the latest sensitive wacko to be embodied by Giovanni Ribisi.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Whereas Maguire's intelligence usually takes the form of a watchful, judicious patience, which expresses itself in a few well-chosen words, Ribisi comes across as bright, jumpy and motormouthed. His voice is nasal, with spittle-drenched vowels that combine the whine of suburban mall rats and the drawl of gangsta rappers--a manner of speech that authenticates him as a young American of the moment, and that contrasts bizarrely with his face. With his pale flesh, high forehead and too-red lips, Ribisi looks like an actor from a twenties melodrama, or a Fassbinder period piece.

In Boiler Room he plays a Jewish college dropout from one of the wealthier sections of Queens, New York--a kid who wants to make money fast, as everyone is now said to do. After running his own casino on a quiet Queens street, he moves up to a higher form of gambling, taking a job as a cold-caller for a "stockbrokerage" called J.T. Marlin.

"On the phone, you can be anybody you want to be," advises Seth's immediate boss, Greg (Nicky Katt). Hence the advantage of making a movie about telephone pitchmen: They're actors themselves. Train a camera on Ribisi, let him get his mouth going, and he's already in character. Boiler Room conveys the adrenaline rush of actors (or stockbrokers) as they get the audience to buy whatever they're selling--a scene, or a hundred shares of an IPO. And what if the IPO is as bogus as the name J.T. Marlin? That's the plot, and theme, of Boiler Room.

Everything in the movie is a bad copy. The office, with its say-what? name, is located more than an hour from the New York Stock Exchange, just off the Long Island Expressway. The twenty-somethings who work there have learned to talk and dress by imitating Michael Douglas in Wall Street. (Granted, they judge it to be a fatally old-fashioned movie--but when they venture into Manhattan, they're the ones who get mocked, as bridge-and-tunnel people.) As for the IPOs, they're flimsy imitations of real stock offerings--something the customers aren't supposed to find out till their last dollar has been lost.

As social criticism, this is both too much and not enough. Boiler Room suggests that the whole American economy is a shell game, yet presents the game as nothing more than a local aberration played by soon-to-be-indicted wannabes. In other words, the movie isn't sure what it wants to do, except get a rise out of you. (Further evidence: the copious use of ethnic-insult dialogue to keep the audience awake.) This doesn't mean Boiler Room is bad; it's just half-baked.

Boiler Room is a first film, written and directed by Ben Younger, who must be of roughly the same age and background as his protagonist. Like the other lost wonder boys of February and March, he has been allowed to break into the movies because producers want to reach his age group: the demographic core of ticket buyers. Is this how the 18-to-25s want to see themselves? Given my shambling, time-tripping perspective, I can't be sure. I merely know that a bunch of producers are betting that the answer is yes.

If they win, maybe the governor of Minnesota in 2015 will be a slim, quizzical fellow called Tobey.

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