The Boost

July 31, 2012

The Boost is worth catching only for yet another nervy portrait turned in by James Woods, the hyperactive star (and critical darling) of Salvador and Best Seller. Woods has created one of his marvelously overheated characters, a born salesman who gets his shot at the big time only to blow it.

Woods has become so good at this that his work in The Boost is almost redundant; he’s enacted this hustling, big-dream lowlife enough times before. Still, it’s a performance with some truly corrosive moments, shot through with Woods’s unsparing, unglamorous honesty.

He plays a New York City salesman who hasn’t quite found his niche yet, although he and his wife (Sean Young, from No Way Out) love each other deeply, no matter what (as they are all too fond of reminding each other). He’s the kind of guy who will invariably spill coffee on his white shirt moments before going into an important job interview. His ship appears to come in when an L.A. executive (Steven Hill) recruits him to come out west and sell high-priced real estate.

Suddenly he’s providing tax shelters hand over fist, and the money’s flowing in. He buys himself a little airplane—nothing outrageous, just a prop job—and he buys his wife a car she saw in a James Bond movie. This is living at Southern California speed, and our hero gets high by breathing in the fumes of money. He gets charged by walking into a party full of Hawaiian shirts and Italian suits: “The discretionary spending power at this party is enormous!” he crows.

This guy has a tendency to pitch himself toward the edge, which is just where he finds himself when the bottom drops out of the market. He and his wife take solace in cocaine, which provides the quicksand for a final descent.

The Boost weakens when it gets into the drug territory, as the cocaine becomes the focus of all the couple’s problems, whereas it is clear from the beginning that Woods’ character is dangerously self-destructive.

The movie has deeper problems, too, like a melodramatic way of lurching forward. Daryl Ponicsan’s script telegraphs disasters; when the pregnant wife tipsily motions toward “A little stairway down to the beach,” you know perfectly well she’s about to tumble down the steps and lose the baby.

Harold Becker, who guided James Woods’ breakthrough role in The Onion Field, directs Woods and Young well, but the downward spiral of their lives takes on a deadening inevitability. After a while, it’s tough to make that compelling, and, despite Woods’ work, The Boost can’t get it done.

First published in the Herald, January 6, 1989

Now, as then, best known as a production marked by some briefly intense feeling between Woods and Young and weird fallout in the aftermath. It was based on a book by Ben Stein.