Equal Rights to Live in Hell

Equity a film by Meena Menon and Amy Fox.  With Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan Thomas, Alysia Reiner.****1/2

This is the best movie about Wall Street I’ve ever seen.  It’s probably the first one I ever understood.  That doesn’t have to do with the fact that it’s about women.  It has to do with expert storytelling and simplicity of plot.

Having seen any number of Wall Street movies where I had to keep track of fifteen or twenty characters, understand a variety of plot lines—even when, as in The Big Short, somebody stopped to explain things—I was surprised, and it took me half the film to realize, that this movie revolved around four people.  Peripheral characters were sometimes important.  But the real drama is concentrated.

Naomi Bishop (Anna Gunn) is close to—but not at—the top of an investment bank in New York.  Raised by a single mother with three other siblings, Naomi is unabashed in her wish for success.  When questioned at an alumni gathering about what gets her up in the morning, she gives what was for me a chilling speech, which begins “I like money.”  She talks about how glad she is that women can speak openly about having ambition, wanting security and power.  We see her working with a personal trainer who gets her to whack the heavy bag.  And it would seem that, though money is important to her, she already has plenty.  Her real thing is ambition.  She doesn’t want to be near the top of an investment bank.  She wants to be at the top.

The makers of this film found the perfect person to play this role in Anna Gunn.  She is attractive and sexy but also mature, so she seems ready to take an investment bank over.  She exudes sex and power at the same time.  Her boyfriend Michael Connor (James Purefoy) is similarly right at the age when he is at the top of his game but still attractive and sexy.  They work for the same company but for different parts of it—there’s a “wall” between them that they’re supposed to maintain—so their romance is not quite unethical, but somewhat perilous.  It might be better if she dated a man who didn’t have something to gain by getting information from her.  Then again, she has to have a lover who is comfortable with her power.

At the same alumni event, listening with fascination, is a woman named Samantha (Alysia Reiner), who investigates white collar crime for the justice department.  They were good friends in college; it seemed that Samantha took the high road, while Naomi chased the almighty dollar.  Naomi is immediately suspicious that Sam might be investigating her—“We have a file on everybody,” she says, revealing nothing—and in fact she is, looking for irregularities in the investment bank and eventually in the relationship between Naomi and Michael.

The other important character, Erin Manning (Sarah Megan Thomas), is kind of a sleeper.  She doesn’t, for me, exude either power or sexiness.  She actually seems frightened and a little mousey.  She is Naomi’s top assistant, and when she complains early on that she’s been “undercompensated” for two years, Naomi immediately says, “This isn’t the year” to press for more, essentially the same thing Naomi has been told by her boss, when she talks about wanting to move up at the investment bank.  Erin is married to a sweet husband who obviously loves her, and we find out early on—at the same time Naomi does—that she’s pregnant, a condition that can be a real liability in this business.  She pretends to drink martinis in public but has actually substituted water.  She isn’t showing yet, and doesn’t want people to know.

The plot revolves around taking a hot social media company public.  That’s one of those financial maneuvers I do and don’t understand, but the context of the movie gradually explains it.  Naomi has done this eleven times before; it seems to be what has made her who she is.  The whole trick is to get investors to come in at the right time so the company opens high and looks like a success.  The company Naomi most recently took public was something less than a smashing success, and her boss tells her some people have said she rubs people the wrong way.  He is about to step down, and she wants his job.  It seems that how she does with this one company going public will make or break her.

What I didn’t understand for much of the movie was why anyone would not want the company to open high.  If an investor—the kind of person that Michael works for—can buy the stocks at a low price, before the company ultimately succeeds, he’ll make a killing.  It therefore might be an advantage for Michael if Naomi’s company doesn’t open well, and it’s certainly an advantage for him to know how it’s going to do.  But for the two of them to collude in any way would be illegal.  Hence the precariousness of their romance, and Samantha’s interest in it.

Ultimately the movie is a character study, not a lesson in how Wall Street works.  It’s a classic situation, a powerful man and woman who are sexually involved and rivals at work (he wants to get into her Blackberry more than he wants to get into her pants), the younger employee who is trying to make her way up in the company, the old friend who is investigating the whole situation.  Shakespeare would have loved this setup.

Different characters interested me at different moments: Michael was intriguing because in some fundamental way he didn’t seem to care, it was all a game for him, and such people are always interesting.  Samantha seems hardnosed and principled, but she has one scene where she turns on the charm to get information from a younger man, and practically fucks him right there at the bar.  She definitely mind fucks him.  But ultimately, for me, the movie’s most interesting character is Naomi.

She has plainly told us what she wants—which if she were a man nobody would question for a moment—and she’s told us why.  She’s perfectly honest.  It’s probably true that she rubs people the wrong way a time or two in the course of what we see, but that’s because she’s telling a truth they need to hear. The head of the social media company is an immature twit.   Erin, who’s not as threatening or powerful as Naomi, relates to him better, though she almost compromises herself.  And the truth is that, within the limit of the work she’s doing, Naomi acts ethically.  She doesn’t do one thing wrong.  She’s the only character you can say that about.

This is a movie about a woman who is smart, powerful, and savvy and whom people don’t like specifically because she is a woman who is smart, powerful, and savvy.  Does that sound familiar?  This is the movie everyone should have seen this weekend.  But most people wanted to see a horror movie about some blind guy terrifying a couple of teenagers.  Why am I not surprised?