ByÂ Guy Lodge
If “The Wolf of Wall Street” took flak in some quarters for complicitly reveling in the glossy moral bankruptcy of its otherwise loaded brokers, the same accusation is unlikely to be leveled against “Equity.” Meera Menon’s refreshingly female-skewed financial thriller proves that the women of Wall Street can be just as cold-heartedly corrupt as the boys, but most viewers won’t be remotely seduced by the pitiless pressure-cooker environment its drawn-faced characters inhabit. Yet while the severity of the film’s environment convinces, the specifics of Amy Fox’s screenplay – tangled up in tech IPOs, post-Snowden security paranoia and venal investment banking practice – are less consistently persuasive. Snapped up by Sony Classics prior to its Sundance premiere, Menon’s film has a strong marketing hook in its more-novel-than-it-should-be gender purview; it may, however, find VOD a more bullish market.
Short of getting Leonardo DiCaprio to provide side commentary from a bubble bath, “Equity” could hardly fashion itself more conscientiously as the antidote to a subgenre of film that, in line with the lopsided corporate realm it depicts, is dominated by aggressively male power structures. As storytelling, it’s a stringently all-business affair, with scant time for the jocular frivolities of “The Big Short” or the aforementioned “Wolf”; it scores a solitary belly-laugh with its protagonist’s power-tripping freakout over the amount of chocolate in a cookie she’s served. (“Three motherf–ing chips!” she yells at a bewildered male underling; a meme-ready moment, should the film take hold withÂ an audience.) “Equity’s” relative sternness of tone hardly feels accidental, given its portrayal of a professional landscape where women have to labor strenuously to convince male colleagues and clients of their seriousness.
Press materials boast that Menon has made “the first female-driven Wall Street movie,” a claim that may be countered by certain fans of Mike Nichols’ “Working Girl” – though either way, “Equity” is light years removed from the milder-mannered, male-conceived wish fulfillment of that workplace comedy. In most respects, at least: The proverbial glass ceiling in “Equity” doesn’t appear to be positioned any higher than it was in 1988, as high-flying investment banker Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) is denied a global position by her male superior on the basis of a single underperforming IPO in her otherwise formidable portfolio. “This is not your year,” he tells Naomi with condescending cheer; her face suggests it’s not the first year she’s heard this. In turn, Naomi’s frustrated deputy Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, one of the film’s producers) is denied a promotion for the second year running: The ladder of opportunity for women in this sector, unsurprisingly, is a narrow one.
Undaunted, Naomi turns to her next IPO coup, setting her sights on cocky British tech entrepreneur Ed (Samuel Roukin) and his buzzy new elite social network (or, as their marketing has it, “privacy company”) Cachet. Negotiations go well, and Naomi duly reels them in, though celebrations are short-lived: Whispered rumors of security breaches are spread by unidentified business rivals, seeking to devalue Cachet’s stock. The further Naomi unpicks the knot, the clearer it becomes that no one is to be trusted in either her professional or personal circles – scarcely differentiated as they are.
Further tightening the screws on the situation, meanwhile, is the sharp scrutiny of Samantha (Alysia Reiner, another producer), an estranged friend now working as a prosecutor for the U.S. attorney’s office. A lesbian with a knack for seducing incendiary information out of easily flattered finance bros, she may be the most powerful player in the whole sordid game. One of the most fascinating avenues of investigation in Fox’s script is the double-edged sword of sexuality for women in finance: As presented here, it’s a weapon that can maneuver them into positions of greater advantage, only to be swiftly used against them by misogynistic gatekeepers. Perceptive as its personal politics often are, however, “Equity” can feel artificial and hastily sketched on the business front – the MacGuffin that is Cachet, especially, reads as a screenwriter’s faintly dated conceit.
Finally given a film role that capitalizes on the hotwired intensity she demonstrated to Emmy-winning effect in TV’s “Breaking Bad,” Anna Gunn makes for a commanding lead, fearsomely seething at a range of volumes from one scene to the next. The lesser-known supporting cast serves the material with appropriately steely commitment, with Reiner a standout as the most sympathetic of the film’s multiple anti-heroines, if only by a fine margin: “Equity” is not a film, it should be said, that invites auds to root for anyone in particular.
Technically, the pic is both proficient and unlovely – which, given the necessarily ugly nature of the material, seems to be a conscious call on Menon’s part. The oily-to-the-touch finish of Eric Lin’s cinematography leaves all onscreen participants looking a little more sweatily worse for wear, though the film could do with fewer thematically pointed extreme angles. Editor Andrew Hafitz keeps the proceedings moving at a suitably businesslike clip, while production designer Diane Lederman has a witty awareness of the insecure machismo that infuses even the decor of Wall Street heavies: a blend of too-heavy timber, native artifacts from unvisited isles, and shade upon shade of executive taupe.
Sundance Film Review: ‘Equity’
Equity is likely one of the more realistic financial sector films out there because I had no idea what the hell anybody was talking about. Well, that’s not exactly true. Director Meera Menon and her three leads, Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner, extract the drama from Amy Fox’s screenplay while still leaving the jargon intact. I don’t know squat about IPOs (if I did, I’d be on my yacht) but I do know a juicy morality play when I see it, and Equity takes us inside modern Wall Street in a unique and gripping manner.
You may have noticed that all the names listed so far are women. That this is a “female look” at Wall Street is more than a marketing gimmick. Like our main character Naomi Bishop (Gunn) this movie strives to make it on its own terms, avoiding opportunities to draw attention to it being any less of a corporate thriller than one starring men. Of course, when your lead is, in fact, a woman, as is her (perhaps untrustworthy) second-in-command (Thomas) as well as the old college chum now working for the government investigating securities fraud (Reiner), we are seeing this familiar world through new eyes.
4 stars out of 5
New for film audiences, that is, not new for actual working women for whom announcing pregnancy is met with a steely “congratulations” which implies “your career is over, how dare you knife me in the back this way?”
The actual plot of Equity is, to a degree, less interesting than the keenly observed moments of the world of high finance. Bishop is a big shot banker who brings companies in on their initial public offerings. Again, I don’t precisely know how this works, but Menon makes every scene understandable to dunces like me who will never know the difference between buying stocks or playing roulette. Bishop’s last deal went bust because the client decided, at the last minute, that he didn’t trust her. The rumour is as simple as he didn’t like her dress. But this new company, a new social network run by an obnoxious pipsqueak in a hoodie (Samuel Roukin), is going to make everyone a zillion dollars.
There are, however, a few problems. Bishop discovers from a hacker (another woman) that the new company is not quite as impervious to attack as they claim. Then there’s Bishop’s boyfriend (James Purefoy), who is some other kind of banker, but is corrupt, and tries to squeeze info out of Bishop. She won’t offer it up, though. She is ruthless in business, but never dishonest. But her long put-upon assistant might be the weak link. Meanwhile Samantha the investigator (who has two children and a female partner back home) uses her female wiles with men to snoop around for illegalities.
This all builds to a sequence where everyone runs around the floor of the stock exchange shouting: “Buy! buy! buy!” but by this time you’ll realise that no matter what the outcome is, this is a toxic and irredeemable system. (Much like steroids in sports, isn’t just time to assume that everyone making real money on Wall Street is using insider info?)
There are a number of fascinating themes to chew on in Fox’s script, but for me nothing tops watching Bishop tussle with the knowledge that her company’s product may be flawed. The implication is all about how it will effect the deal and her perception in the company’s eyes, and if she’ll be indemnified once the service is inevitably revealed to be bunk. Not once does the issue of screwing over the consumer come up. Keep in mind, this is the good guy we’re talking about!
All of the performances are top notch, and if there’s any justice Equity will propel Anna Gunn to A-list status. The only by-the-numbers characters, actually, are the men. Purefoy is just a boy version of a femme fatale, and Alyssa Reiner’s cheap suit-wearing partner is straight from central casting. Is Meera Menon so dedicated a feminist that she’ll intentionally make the male characters one-dimensional, to counteract that hundreds of movies with bland wives and girlfriends? Probably not, but for a movie all about deception for a bigger payoff, I’d like to pretend that it’s so.