Sony Pictures Classics
This is an interesting movie about the world of finance, made extremely interesting by the fact that three of its main characters are women. The fact of their being women is both incidental and intrinsic to the plot. This movie is so, so smart, in a way that intelligence is rarely depicted onscreen — we see people putting strategies in place during bar chitchat that their opponent doesn’t even need to verbalize to understand and respond to. It’s fascinating. And none of this would have broken down the same way if the people involved were all men.
Naomi (Anna Gunn) is the lead banker on the initial public offering of a secure social network called Cachet. Her best analyst is Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), who is newly pregnant and determined to keep that concealed at work for as long as possible. At a alumnae networking event, Naomi reconnects with Samantha (Alysia Reiner), who is now a public prosecutor quietly building a case regarding insider trading against a company run by Benji Akers (Craig Bierko). Benji is old friends with Michael (James Purefoy, who has finally been perfectly cast in something), who does more than just works in the same bank as Naomi, but who is prevented from discussing the IPO with her due to the “Chinese walls” the banks have in place. That is to say, everyone is keenly aware of the regulations around the free flow of information internally within the bank in order to prevent conflicts of interest.
Everyone has an agenda; everyone has competing interests; everyone’s main priority is making shit-tons of money. Capital is important, as is information. Trust is a rare commodity and love is so precious as to be almost unobtainable. Sam has twin first graders and a messy house with a loving wife (Tracie Thoms in a thankless role); she has to take the subway, which, as in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” is code for pointless, demeaning honesty. Naomi has a spotless penthouse full of modern art and a lot of silence; Michael has one of those sofa suites that wrap around a room and an African mask collection. Both of them, and Erin, spend a lot of time being driven around the city (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, does it matter, although since the movie was filmed in Philadelphia its exteriors are carefully generic) while on their blackberries. The bankers’ lives are spent on their phones or computers, in fancy meeting rooms, crunching data or explaining to businessmen like Cachet’s young CEO, Ed (Samuel Roukin), how they can make them even more money.
But Naomi’s reputation is floundering since she did badly on a previous deal, and this one is make-or-break. Erin has been working closely with Naomi for years, and the pregnancy means that her longed-for promotion is probably even more unobtainable. Naomi grew up poor, has earned her position at the top of the pile, and is determined to stay there. She’s savvy enough to realize a problem within Cachet just from the body language of an IT employee named Marin (Sophie von Haselberg) and she’s canny enough to move quickly to try to stanch the damage. And while she’s smart enough not to trust Michael fully, she doesn’t know the half of what he does.
The key moment in the film is just Michael and Erin sitting on that fancy sofa while Erin takes a phone call. Director Meera Menon and cinematographer Eric Lin (who subtly reinforces the edgy feel of the movie by using an off-center framing on most of his close-ups) stage this as a come-to-Jesus moment. Erin must decide, by pressing a single button, what integrity means to her. Are personal ethics worthwhile when everyone else is playing dirty? Is playing dirty worthwhile if a retirement filled with golf and top-shelf whisky is there for the taking? Is being able to recommend that everyone taste the Tasmanian Sea trout better than a sandwich and a clear conscience in the park?
It’s extremely refreshing to see a movie about women and power where the power the women have doesn’t come from their sexuality. Naomi’s speech at the alumnae event, where she talks about how much she loves money and how happy she is that ambition is no longer a dirty word for women, is used as a rallying cry throughout the film. There’s a lot to be said about how capitalism has altered human relationships, and how difficult it is to love and be loved if money is the only currency that matters.
All that said, “Equity” is not perfect. Clever editing (by Andrew Hafitz) and smart production design (by Diane Lederman) go a long way to hide the smallness of the movie’s budget, but comparing this to other, glossier Wall Street movies is an exercise in frustration. Amy Fox’s screenplay (which is based on a story she wrote with Ms. Thomas and Ms. Reiner) also stumbles in not giving Naomi something in her life other than work. The other characters have people on their side — Erin’s husband, Michael and Benji have each other, Sam’s family. Even Naomi’s manager (Lee Tergesen) has a Jenga set on his desk as a metaphor while he yells at everyone. Naomi has her intelligence, her skill at her job, and her ability to usually be the smartest person in the room, which certainly isn’t nothing, and Ms. Gunn does what feels like an effortless job at conveying all of this, but a lot of times in finance those are basics. We see her working out on a punch bag with a trainer, but an exercise routine is hardly a passion. What does Naomi likes to do with the money she’s earned: Does she scuba dive? Build schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods? Blow it all on hookers and cocaine? Rainmakers are very careful to make the best of what they’ve fertilized, so leaving that out is an unusual misstep. But those are minor quibbles.