THE WORLD OF TELEMARKETERS IS A COLORFULLY twisted corner of American hell that has long cried out for its definitive movie. The hidden cameras of 60 Minutes and 20/20 barely scratch the surface when they visit this world, blurrily depicting banks of phones operated by phalanxes of Type A con artists and recent college grads all desperate to make a fast buck by pitching whatever stock, products, real or unreal estate might be saleable or handy.
Writer-director Ben Younger -- making his feature debut with Boiler Room -- dramatizes this inferno in all its surrealist criminality but focuses on a particularly lethal species of phone sales known as boiler-room brokering. Here, young hotshots playing for six-figure commissions practice a scam called pump-and-dump, inflating a stock's value for purchase over the phone by unwitting strangers, only to dump the stock for these inflated prices before the suckers catch on. Seth (Giovanni Ribisi), a clever hustler who's been successfully running an illegal casino out of his Queens apartment, decides to go straight by becoming a boiler-room trainee at the invitation of his buddy Greg (Nicky Katt). Seth has a natural gift for the trade, born of his shady background. He dials professionals of every stripe -- doctors, lawyers, accountants -- slickly introducing himself, warming them up with a smooth line of b.s. that systematically defeats any and all objections until Greg, or newer pal Chris (Vin Diesel), can slip onto the line and close the sale. Seth's criminal instincts have been so finely honed from his years operating the casino that he's a bit myopic about the crookedness of the brokerage. For a time, he's honestly able to kid himself that he's cleaned up his act.
Younger plainly knows this world well, especially its ruthless charm, and illusions of invincibility. The conversational warfare when Seth is working the phones, the bloodletting jambalaya of dirty jokes and ethnic insults his buddies trade when they're relaxing, are overheard with a reliable ear. As a first-time filmmaker, Younger is consciously wrestling with David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and Oliver Stone's Wall Street. In one funny sequence, Seth's office buddies raucously watch the Stone film and recite its every line aloud, word for word. In another, Ben Affleck, channeling Alec Baldwin, pointedly quotes the ABC's of salesmanship from Glengarry Glen Ross: "A-B-C -- Always Be Closing." A clever layer of ambition and irony emerges from these references. Younger is palpably conversing with these earlier works, contradicting and confirming them by turns, not to mock his masters but the better to mark off and frame the truth as he sees it. The sharks Seth swims with have a romantic image of themselves, born from movies and literature, as dashing monsters. Mature judgment, though, comes from someplace deeper, Younger argues -- the Torah, perhaps.
Seth, who is Jewish, finds himself at fatal odds with his father (Ron Rifkin), a federal judge so appalled by his son's career choices that the two barely exchange a civil word. Their relationship is nevertheless the richest in the film -- the father's inflexibility is so extreme that, thanks to Rifkin's subtlety as an actor, his remoteness gradually registers as a deeper passion, a love that takes the form of moral severity yet remains love all the same. Sometimes we're up against artificial limitations -- there's an old, buried trauma in the relations between father and son that surfaces in their arguments like clockwork, a formulaic invitation for the two to face each other and heal. But such a defect pales next to what's right about the film, which is the spectacle of a young man with criminal talents trying to hang on to the sense of honor that will free him from the trap of a criminal's fate. This is a quirky predicament, so finely observed that you come away from Boiler Room eager to see what Younger will do next.
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BOILER ROOM | Written and directed by BEN YOUNGER | Produced by SUZANNE and JENNIFER TODD Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide