By Pamela Zoslov
It’s tempting to analogize the new Wall Street drama Equity to the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton. Both boast of being “firsts” — first woman major-party presidential candidate, first movie about high finance produced, written, directed by and starring women. What both narratives demonstrate is that women can be just as bad as, if not worse than, men.
Equity was written by Amy Fox and directed by Meera Menon, and stars Anna Gunn (of Breaking Bad) as Naomi Bishop, an ambitious, hard-working investment banker for a top firm. She recently experienced a major failure in launching an IPO called Dynacorps — she “rubbed people the wrong way” and “ruffled some feathers” — and is hungry for a success. The firm’s boss, who has that slightly too-long hair that suggests sleaziness, is discouraging: “Naomi, it doesn’t look like your year,” he says disdainfully while playing with the Jenga tower on his desk.
We learn that Naomi had a hard-luck childhood in which there was never enough money, and that fueled her ambition. “I…like…money,” she explains to a circle of women in a mentoring group. “I like numbers, I like negotiating, turning ‘No’ into ‘Yes.’” The message of the movie is that it’s okay for women to be ambitious. “Don’t let money be a dirty word,” Naomi advises her young mentees. Naomi is proud of her independence. She can buy her own diamond earrings, thank you, and sleep with her co-worker boyfriend, Michael Connor (British actor James Purefoy), at her pleasure.
At an alumni event, Naomi runs into Samantha (Alysia Reiner of Orange Is the New Black , who co-wrote and co-produced), a Justice Department investigator who’s looking into insider trading and trying to get information from Naomi about her boyfriend Michael and their firm. Naomi is smart enough to discern Samantha’s agenda but not clever enough to keep crucial information (including her phone password) from her ruthless lover. Naomi also makes the mistake of treating her competent young assistant, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) callously, as Erin has ambitions of her own.
Various sources of corruption and backstabbing converge when Naomi launches tech IPO called Cachet, a privacy cyberware developed by cocky entrepreneur Ed (Samuel Roukin, another Englishman), who is deftly manipulated by pretty Erin, who bats her eyes at him to help grease the deal. Marin (Sophie von Hasselberg), an aggrieved Cachet programmer who has some damaging data about the product, and an arrogant investor (Craig Bierko) seeking inside information, complicate matters.
If there’s a feminist message in this women-driven drama, it’s hard to discern. The movie doesn’t address real issues of concern to working women, like sexism in the workplace, and reinforces negative stereotypes by having Erin and Samantha use their sexuality (vamping and flirting) to get what they want. (Is that what Justice Department officials do?) Without a clear purpose, this distaff version of of boardroom dramas like Margin Call, Wall Street, The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street becomes a mere novelty, like the all-children cast of The Terror of Tiny Town. The takeaway is, pace Gordon Gekko, that “greed is good…for girls,” and women can be as ruthless and reckless as men. Naomi is arrogant, makes rookie mistakes, and has an explosive temper, at one point throwing a tantrum because her cookie has too few chocolate chips.
Equity may not be the women’s business movie it could be, but it’s efficiently directed and well acted, and feels relatively authentic to anyone who’s ever worked for a bad boss in an ethically questionable environment. Grade: B-