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‘Boiler Room’ at 20: A proto-‘Wolf of Wall Street’

Boiler Room got a lot of things right twenty years ago

The 2000 drama Boiler Room, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this week, is in a unique position among films of its kind: It was released, enjoyed a modestly successful reputation, and then 13 years later, another film came out that was based on the same story, and completely outshone it in regards to scale, ambition, and prestige. 

Should the existence of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street be held against Boiler Room? Of course not. It’s a fine little movie, with quite a lot to recommend about it. But it’s nowhere close to the classic crime epic that would follow in 2013. 

Boiler Room, directed by Ben Younger, told the story of Seth (Giovanni Ribisi) the privileged, ne’er-do-well son of a federal judge. A college dropout who most recently ran an illegal casino out of his apartment, he lands a job as a trainee at a shady, Long Island-based penny stock brokerage. 

He proves adept at the work, and the money quickly rolls in, but Seth soon realizes the whole thing is a massive criminal grift, which involves ripping off customers by selling stock in worthless or nonexistent companies. So the film turns into a thriller, as Seth tries to avoid jail, return money to a sad sack (Taylor Nichols) ripped off by the firm, and salvage his relationship with his judgmental father. 

The film boasted a cast that included the then-ascendent Ben Affleck, in a small role clearly meant to recall Alec Baldwin’s boardroom scene in Glengarry Glen Ross. Brokers with the firm included Nicky Katt, Scott Caan, and Vin Diesel, in an early role a year before the first The Fast and the Furious movie. 

Boiler Room got a lot of things right, starting with the bro-ey culture of Wall Street, the very specific manliness of that outer boroughs/Long Island milieu and, most of all, the way men of that culture fail to realize movies like Wall Street, and The Wolf of Wall Street are critical of their world. 

We see Vin Diesel reciting entire scenes of Oliver Stone’s 1987 film- a stridently left-wing critique of capitalism and Wall Street culture that nonetheless encouraged a generation of men to go to work in that profession in order to rake in millions, wear suits like Charlie Sheen and extoll greed like Michael Douglas. It’s a good bet Boiler Room encouraged some to go that route too.

The film also notes that while the characters were pulling in mid-six figures in their early 20s, none of them could get a car loan because of their bad credit. 

While Younger, who was only 29 when he directed the movie, said in interviews that he got the idea from interviewing for such a job, Boiler Room was loosely based on the story of Jordan Belfort and Stratton Oakmont, who had made headlines for their rise and fall just a couple of years earlier. The “official” version of that story, based on Belfort’s memoir of the same name, would be made by Martin Scorsese as The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, bringing the story a larger scale in every way: A more famous director, a more star-studded cast, a three-hour running time, and significantly more vulgarity. 

Sure, the approach is a bit different. Scorsese’s movie was about the men at the top of the company, while Younger’s focused on a young newcomer who essentially turned whistleblower (Tom Everett Scott, in only a handful of scenes, played the Belfort stand-in character.) Boiler Room inserts a redemption arc about the protagonist doing the right thing, while The Wolf of Wall Street had no such thing, and even ended with Belfort gleefully admitting that he all but got away with everything:

Both films, oddly enough, have become cable TV mainstays, although due to its extreme vulgarity, Wolf is rarely shown outside of premium cable. 

As for Ben Younger, he has only directed two films in the 20 years since Boiler Room– the 2005 Uma Thurman romantic comedy Prime, and the 2016 boxing biopic Bleed For This, both of which he wrote and directed. He’s also worked on television and been published in The New Yorker. But even a career like that is preferable to working in a Long Island penny stock operation, as he almost did. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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