Thursday, June 9, 2016

Equity (LA Film Fest 2016)

Set in the high-powered world of New York City finance, Equity is a showcase for Breaking Bad star Anna Gunn to prove she unequivocally has what it takes to headline a movie.

Equity
Director: Meera Menon
Starring: Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas, James Purefoy


Naomi Bishop (Gunn) works for one of the world’s largest banks, and she has a successful track record investing in start-up companies that sell for big bucks when they go public. Her last deal didn’t go so well, but she brushes herself off and she and her VP/assistant Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) move on to dealing with Cachet, a promising privacy company despite its douchey tech bro founder. Meanwhile, Naomi’s old friend Sam (Orange is the New Black’s Alysia Reiner), now working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, begins investigating a shady figure (Craig Bierko) who has ties to Michael Conners (James Purefoy), a broker at Naomi’s bank who Naomi’s sleeping with. The movie tracks all of these players as Cachet’s IPO approaches its launch, detailing all of the broken alliances, sold secrets, and power moves made behind closed doors.

I expect to see some people comparing this to The Big Short, but this movie doesn’t stop to explain things to the audience the way Adam McKay’s film does. Instead, this shares more DNA with Wall Street, which refuses to define its jargon and terms and expects the audience to pick it up along the way. (I don’t follow the financial world at all, but even if you don’t understand what an IPO or a VC is, the emotional throughlines of both movies are easy to grasp). There’s also a riff on Wall Street’s famous “Greed is Good” speech, in which Naomi talks about how much she likes money and how it’s finally acceptable for women to openly talk about ambition. (This movie clearly wants to be remembered for that scene, since two different characters say it over the course of the film.) 

As a title, Equity has a dual meaning: there’s the financial definition (“equity: the value of the shares issued by a company”), and the alternate definition that deals with being treated fairly and impartially. While the film is outwardly about the first meaning, it’s more concerned with the second. Naomi and Erin are both trying to find a way to work in an environment that is inherently unfair to them because they’re women, and for most of the movie, those challenges are explored in a competent way. But late in the film, there’s a scene that slams home the metaphor so hard that I fear if this film has any cultural impact at all, it’s going to be for this scene alone, a much worse version of There Will Be Blood’s “I drink your milkshake” moment. One of Naomi’s male employees is eating a chocolate chip cookie, and she asks for one. He brings her one with only three chocolate chips in it, and she GOES OFF on him for bringing her one with less chips in it than the one he ate. I figured this movie would touch on the idea of wage disparity between men and women, but I never imagined it would do it with a chocolate chip cookie metaphor. The sad part is, you can take that scene out of the movie and the film would be better for it; it’s unnecessary repetition of a concept that’s already been explored.

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill after that. The movie loses its footing as it lurches toward the finish line, which is a shame because the first two thirds are solid. The cinematography is crisp and warm, the script establishes the characters beautifully in a short amount of time and kept me hooked as it unspooled (until the cookie scene), and the acting is strong as well — Purefoy and Bierko give welcome performances, but Anna Gunn is tremendous and Sarah Megan Thomas is outstanding as her underpaid and overworked VP.


A cautionary tale about the danger of undervaluing employees, Equity gets wrapped up in its betrayals and hits a few snags with its ending, but if you’re willing to forgive that and are more interested in witnessing a powerhouse performance, this will do the trick.

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