**1/2 out of ****
(for strong language and sensuality)
Released: August 26, 2016
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Meera Menon
Starring: Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan Thomas, Alysia Reiner, Samuel Roukin, Nate Corddry, Craig Bierko
In a new ranking by the BBC of the 21st Century’s best films so far, the consensus of top international film critics and writers put David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive at #1, a movie (interestingly enough) that started out as a failed TV pilot before being reworked into a feature film. It’s a masterpiece that belies its roots.
Equity is sort of the inverse of that. This female-centric Wall Street thriller is a feature film with no TV pedigree that feels very much like a series setup. In the Golden Age of Television, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But for a movie with a unique gender spin on a testosterone genre, its ambitions are undercut by sensationalized tropes straight out of Shondaland.
Anna Gunn (TV’s Breaking Bad) plays Naomi Bishop, a famous and unorthodox consultant who’s risen near the top of a leading New York financial firm. Her strength is in guiding promising IPO’s toward making a big splash when they “go public” for investors and shareholders. It’s a precarious job that balances complex prep, marketing, and rumor management, and Naomi has mastered it. She’s ruthless, even greedy, but ethical; sort of a Gordon Gekko with a conscious.
Yet on top of her job’s inherent demands, she also has sexism and corruption to deal with. Both threaten to take her down at the most important crossroads of her career, when the launch of a new security software could promote her to heir apparent for the firm she works for. Or, if her challengers’ schemes work, she could find herself in jail. Even if Naomi pulls it off, there’s still the not-so-latent misogyny that could keep her stuck where she’s at, regardless of how successful she is. All of these overbearing injustices loom, grow, and collapse in on Naomi as the plot unfolds.
This would all be very compelling, and certainly is in fits and starts (including the subplot of Naomi’s right-hand superstar – played by co-writer Sarah Megan Thomas – whose earned ascent is threatened by her pregnancy), but the smart and challenging aspects of the story start to compete with (and lose out to) the more base aspects: sex, power, backstabbing, etc. Even the self-righteous female government agent who investigates insider trading isn’t above using her sexuality to garner information (I mean, seriously?) Writer/Director Meera Menon crafts a chic, classy aesthetic but, ultimately, it’s a polished veneer covering a pulpy core.
Clogging up the works a bit, too, is a script burdened by exposition. It’s forgivable for awhile in the first act, but as the story continues the script requires too much of its dialogue, laden with information and detail. Exchanges aren’t organic; often, they simply serve the plot and backstory. These conversations, in effect, become too self-conscious.
This, along with the pulpy aspects, is what gives Equity more of a TV feel. Television is a medium where scripts have to be churned out much more quickly, so exposition and seedy elements become easy go-to’s. In film, particularly an indie, the hope would be to keep rewriting until the script matches ambition. Here, Menon and Thomas’ script is headed in exactly the right direction; it just could’ve used a few more rewrites to make it as smart and sophisticated as it wants to be. It shoots for Margin Call but doesn’t quite get there.
That said, this story could’ve also been better served over a 13-episode arc. In such a context, Gunn could’ve given Naomi’s cutthroat confidence more nuance than can be achieved here (although when Naomi is trapped in a corner, Gunn can sell anxiety and disaster control at the drop of a hat, thanks to her years as Mrs. Walter White). Similarly, the arc of the government agent (played by producer Alysia Reiner) could’ve been treated with more patience over the course of a season, and not have necessarily needed to resort to seducing easy marks and insider prey.
Menon has more impressive instincts as a filmmaker than a storyteller (and clearly has better films ahead of her). She’s not bad at the latter, necessarily, but the story here is a fairly rote potboiler. Once you get past how it observes this world from a female / feminist perspective (which is fresh, to be sure), we’re left with the kind of slick yet vicious high stakes game we’ve seen played out plenty of times before. More to the point, Equity doesn’t so much immerse us into the corrupt Wall Street world as it does Hollywood’s version of it.