Set in a financial wasteland of hustling brokers and get-rich-quick schemes, Boiler Room shows how a naive youngster receives a harsh education in an unforgiving world. First-time director Ben Younger, who also wrote the screenplay, resorts to clichs at times and loses focus at others. Still, his settings and characters are intriguing, and the film boasts a first-rate performance by Giovanni Ribisi in a demanding role.

Ribisi plays Seth Davis, a college dropout who runs an illegal casino from a row-house in Queens, New York. Hungry for money, and for approval from his father Marty (Ron Rifkin), a judge, Seth jumps at a chance to join J.T. Marlin, an obscure brokerage far removed from Manhattan's financial district. His first days alternate between high-pressure pep talks from recruiter Jim Younger (Ben Affleck) and more nuts-and-bolts advice from senior broker and mentor Greg (Nicky Katt). Seth compares the heart of J.T. Marlin-a 'boiler room' of shouting brokers pushing shady stocks-to a Hitler Youth rally. Still, it's a heady, frightening rush that he finds irresistible.

Seth starts cold-calling customers, embellishing his scripted pitches so well that he wins the respect of senior broker Chris (Vin Diesel). Seth relishes the camaraderie of his fellow traders, but is appalled by their tastes and interests, like their habit of reciting dialogue from the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street. Seth's compulsions spill over into his personal life. When he is interrupted by a telemarketer one morning, Seth enjoys teaching him how to improve his spiel.

Doubts about J.T. Marlin surface. Seth sees an SEC compliance officer shredding documents late at night, and there are troubling inconsistencies in the firm's IPO's. Still, he is tantalized by the immense sums he feels are just within reach. A stock he is pushing collapses, losing over 80 percent of its value in less than a week. That's when FBI agents investigating J.T. Marlin arrest Seth. He must inform on Marlin to save his father's career, in jeopardy after a wiretapped phone call.

Director Younger's research into the boiler-room subculture helps make the trading scenes here unusually convincing. He can explain the tricks cold-callers use, as well as the relentless pressure to sell that drives them. But Younger is much less successful in showing what makes the characters tick. The film tries hard to justify Seth's behavior, but it becomes increasingly difficult to sympathize with someone who is so oblivious to his mistakes.

Still, Ribisi throws himself into his role. Fueled by jealousy and revenge, he's the perfect dupe for J.T. Marlin scams. Posed by the phone, with his hunched shoulders, slicked-back hair and feral mouth, he's like a cobra waiting to strike. Rifkin is also excellent in a sharp, focused turn that nails his unforgiving father. Affleck does little in a minor role; Diesel and Katt are much more believable as rival traders.

Technical aspects are adequate, although there are a number of out-of-focus shots and some overly frenetic editing. The music is harsh and ugly, as is the occasionally racist humor. Broad stereotypes, especially in a subplot involving FBI agents, are another problem, to say nothing of the appropriation of several plot elements from Wall Street.

The film's moral themes don't really add up, partly because the choices Seth faces (working in an illegal casino or an illegal brokerage) aren't fair, but also because it's too pat for Seth to blame his father for his own problems. Still, Boiler Room is a confident movie that tackles a worthwhile topic with insight and conviction. It's a solid and entertaining debut.

--Daniel Eagan