Equity (2016) dir. Meera Menon Rated: R image: ©2016 Sony Pictures Classics

Equity (2016)
dir. Meera Menon
Rated: R
image: ©2016 Sony Pictures Classics

Everybody sucks. As a life philosophy, that can be a little bleak, and it’s often depressing. Subscribing to it, however, means I’m rarely disappointed. I’m only being a little facetious when I say that’s how I view humanity. Despite rarely expecting the best in people, I generally try to be optimistic and give them the benefit of the doubt until they give me reason to suspect that they suck, too. The movie Equity breaks the glass ceiling for women in this regard. Given enough power and ambition, here the focus is high-stakes venture capitalism and Wall Street, women can be just as ruthless and awful as men. That might not be the most groundbreaking message, but it’s refreshing to see a group of women filmmakers explore the notion, even if the results aren’t a complete success.

Equity tells the story of Naomi Bishop, a senior investment banker who specializes in putting together the IPO (Initial Public Offering) of companies that are ready to sell their stock to outside investors for the first time. Despite the last company she shepherded to the stock market underperforming, Naomi is very good at her job. Since the IPO of that company raised less money than desired, the owners were left very disappointed. Naomi took all the blame in the media and within her own firm, and after just one misstep following nine successful IPO launches, she now has to justify why she’s one of the best at what she does.

Naomi’s overnight ruination is screenwriter Amy Fox’s first deft and understated exploration of how the rules on Wall Street (if not everywhere) are very different for women compared to men. The movie never explicitly says it, but an obvious observation is that women are held to an unreasonable standard of success in a world where men routinely screw up but rarely risk a promotion or even an opportunity with a new client. Naomi’s boss makes it clear that failure won’t be tolerated from her when he passes her over for a promotion to head her department because of this one mistake. “It’s just not your year,” he tells her, the implication being that it will never be “her year.”

Fox’s screenplay, based on a story by herself, as well as Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner, is best when tackling underlying issues of sexism in the working world, because it handles them with a delicate subtlety. Naomi’s assistant, Erin, is a character willing to do things in the interest of her own career no matter how unethical they are. She simultaneously, though, has to deal with things that would never cross the mind of a man in her position. Erin is pregnant, and feels she has to hide the fact from Naomi, lest she be seen as having a weakness that will distract her from her work. When Naomi does find out, she openly asks Erin how she should respond, essentially reacting in the same way you might expect of a man in her powerful position.

Fox’s insights about men are just as perceptive. Naomi is dating Michael, a hedge fund manager at the same bank where she works. When Naomi is venting her frustrations about the lost promotion, and partially blames herself for losing it, Michael offers some particularly on point advice. The difference between men and women in these situations, he tells Naomi, is women blame themselves, while men direct their anger outwards. It’s really satisfying to direct your anger at the other bastard, he tells her.

The weaknesses in the screenplay are the moments that don’t rely on that sharply honed sense of nuance, and a lack of exposition to bring those of us unfamiliar with cutthroat finance up to speed. Most of the story involves Naomi’s attempt to get back on top by launching a new IPO for the company Cache, a social networking platform that offers a dedication to privacy unparalleled in the industry. There are underhanded dealings from just about every character in the movie, all making plays to secure the best outcomes for themselves.

The uphill battle Naomi faces with her new client becomes even more dire when Samantha, a federal financial regulator – and coincidentally an old college buddy of Naomi – starts investigating Cache’s upcoming IPO. There are moments in Equity when I knew important things were happening, I just couldn’t tell you exactly what those things were. As someone who struggled to get through two semesters of Accounting in college– a terribly misguided and short-lived attempt at obtaining a business degree eons ago – I was adrift at times, and I badly needed an explanation of what was happening.

Besides lacking necessary exposition, the otherwise strong Equity gets off track with one scene toward the end that was undoubtedly planned as a showcase for the tough-as-nails strength of Naomi. In a tense sequence depicting Cache’s opening on the stock market, Naomi is urged by her underlings to eat something, as her concentrated efforts to pull off a win have caused her to go all day without food. One employee has cookies delivered and Naomi begrudgingly agrees to have one. In a moment reminiscent of the brilliant exchange about blueberry muffins between Sam “Ace” Rothstein and a hapless chef in the movie Casino, Naomi becomes enraged when she looks at her cookie and notices the shocking lack of chocolate chips compared to the ones her subordinates are eating. The pressure she’s under is too much, and Naomi berates her employee, demanding a cookie overflowing with chocolate chips.

The almost identical scene in Casino works because of the highly stylized tone of the entire movie. It fits right in with every other outlandish event that occurs. In Equity, director Meera Menon strives, and succeeds to a great degree, in creating an environment of believable realism. Because of this, the cookie scene clashes horribly with the tone of the rest of the film. The only thing that saves it from completely derailing the whole movie is Anna Gunn’s performance as Naomi. In a lesser actor’s hands, the scene would have been laughable instead of just oddly perplexing.

Despite its shortcomings, Equity is a strong study of a subject that is largely ignored in mainstream movies. It’s a film written, directed, and starring women. They have a unique perspective on how women in positions of power are treated, and the pitfalls they face when they have that power. Perspectives like those are something Hollywood studios should support as much as possible. They, and their audiences, would benefit greatly from it.

Why it got 3 stars:
- Equity is engaging and a tale well told. The movie's problems hold it back from being great, but even with them, it's a satisfying experience.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- One other small weakness is Equity's reliance on a cliché moment that anyone can see coming. Naomi's boss has a Jenga game set up on his desk, and three or four scenes take place in his office. The boss likes to play the game while he's talking with employees, and Naomi participates during one conversation, carefully removing one of the wood blocks from the bottom and placing it on top. You know where this is going, right? The second I saw the game displayed on his desk I thought to myself, "That's going to be knocked over during a tense argument towards the end of the movie." Spoiler alert: I was not wrong. 

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