Wall Street films have traditionally been raucous affairs, featuring bankers, investors, fund managers, and traders as hedonistic party boys. If a woman showed up, she'd be there to take shorthand or to strip. Sometimes both.
It's all the more reason to celebrate director Meera Menon's second feature, Equity, an intensely intelligent, well-written, and mature exploration of the unwritten rules women have to follow if they want to succeed in high finance.
Billed as "the first female-driven Wall Street movie," Equity is the brainchild of two actor-producers: Haverford's own Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner (Orange Is the New Black), who cowrote the original story after conducting extensive interviews with women who work in the financial industry.
From interviews? On paper, the film sounds like it's bound to be a dry, droning documentary, a quasi-feminist tract with a long list of grievances about the industry's inherent sexism.
Equity is anything but dry.
It's an exciting, smartly sexy, suspenseful little crime drama that evokes classic Hollywood film noir.
A subtle piece of drama that feels like a quieter, less-madcap version of Mad Men, Equity attempts to capture the female Wall Street experience through sustained portraits of three women. Strong and capable, each has to make serious sacrifices to get ahead in the world. One sacrifices the opportunity to have a family; another, her moral scruples; the third, any chance of an inner life.
Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn is superb as Naomi Bishop, an experienced investment banker in her 40s who specializes in reeling in tech firms to hire her bank as the underwriter for their IPOs. It takes a little work to warm up to Naomi, who seems so guarded, aloof, and imperious as to be unapproachable.
Thomas stars as Naomi's younger protégée, Erin Manning, who does most of the older woman's grunt work.
Naomi is a lone wolf without a husband or kids. Her sometime lover is a slimy hedge-fund broker (James Purefoy) who pumps her for privileged information so he can do a little insider trading.
Erin seems more well-rounded: She has a nice husband at home. And in a nerve-racking early scene, we find out she's pregnant. She knows that for female executives, taking maternity leave is career suicide: Once you're out, they'll never have you back.
Reiner stars as the third character, a wonderfully crusty, sarcastic federal prosecutor who is going after the bank for its illegal practices.
Equity sometimes feels like a social-dynamics textbook, but the characters are well-drawn and compelling. The action hinges on Naomi's bid to land a social media company run by a snot-nosed, sexist young turk. The process will lead each woman to the brink of corruption.
We need more films like this - serious but not maudlin dramas about the way we live now and the toll it takes on our souls.
*** (Out of four stars)
• Directed by Meera Menon. With Anna Gunn, Sarah Megan Thomas, Alysia Reiner, James Purefoy. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
• Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
• Parent's guide: R (profanity, some sexuality).
• Playing at: Ritz 5.