Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review: "Equity"

Stories of Wall Street corruption are all the rage these days, from the sharp and smart ("The Big Short") to the pedantic and predictable ("Money Monster"). But what's undeniable is that these movies have been heavily -- almost entirely -- male-dominated.

It makes sense, since if you take a look around the financial industry you see a whole lot of testosterone. But there are women in high finance, and "Equity" aims to show that they can be just as conniving and unscrupulous as the guys. But it also displays some of the special challenges and biases females face in a very male-centric world.

It's notable if only for the fact that the writer, director, producers and main stars are all women. Anna Gunn plays Naomi Bishop, a hard-charging underwriter of initial public offerings (IPOs). There's a great early scene where she speaks to college women at an alumni function with some other high achievers, and she talks about how great it is that they can openly express their ambition.

"I like money," Naomi says, talking about the security and status of making a lot of dough, and echoing Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech for a generation ago.

But Naomi wants to move up. A top spot in her company has opened up, but the boss (Lee Tergesen) dismissively tells her "this isn't your year." Though she's made a lot of money -- 20 major IPOs in the last five years -- one slipped through her fingers and she's getting the blame.

Tellingly, she's often accused of rubbing people the wrong way, a charge we doubt would happen if Naomi had a Y chromosome. Now she's got another huge stock debut coming up for Cachet, a social network with an emphasis on privacy, and it could make or break her reputation.

Naomi dallies with Michael (James Purefoy), who works for the same company on the stock trading side -- meaning federal rules are supposed to draw an impenetrable wall between their activities. But Michael's a devoted player of "the game," as everyone calls it, and is not above looking for a little inside information between the bedsheets.

Sarah Megan Thomas plays Erin, Naomi's right-hand woman. She's basically Naomi, 12 to 15 years earlier, trying fruitlessly at balancing a family life with a job that requires 24/7 eyes on the prize. Erin has recently learned she's pregnant, and throughout the movie she squeezes herself tighter and tighter into her business suits, knowing that the "mommy track" isn't the one that will take her to the top of the mountain.

Alyesia Reiner plays Samantha, a classmate of Naomi's who is now a prosecutor overseeing Wall Street corruption. Like Michael, Sam uses her personal relationship with Naomi to get what she wants out of her. It's an interesting character, someone who wants to root out malfeasance but isn't above employing some shady tactics to get what she wants.

"Equity," directed by Meera Menon from a script by Amy Fox (Reiner and Thomas contributed to the story), does a great job at capturing the alluring, and repulsive, world of high finance. There are the back-breaking hours in the office, followed by the de rigeur dinners, drinks and schmoozing late into the night. It's an existence that is centered entirely around money. Even the faintest whisper of doubt about a company can send their stock tumbling ... so it follows that some people will start rumors for their own benefit.

Gunn is steadfast and strong as Naomi, who's the straightest player in a rigged game where everyone is at least a little bit crooked. But she's far from perfect. One scene suggests she slept around early on to advance her career. There's also a very tense scene where Naomi, who's very strict about her diet and exercise, screams at a subordinate for bringing her a chocolate chip cookie with only three chips in it.

We've scene male characters go on these unhinged power trips before, so it's in some ways empowering -- in a disturbing way -- to see a powerful female character go down the same path.

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