The collapse of Lehman Brothers helped yesterday become the worst day in the stock market in seven years. It may not be too long before the dealings of the financial industry start to invade the movies again. If you are like me, the ups and down of the stock market are about as real to you as Jabba the Hutt. Yes, I know the economy is in the toilet, but I still have to pay my bills like always and I’m pretty sure that aspect of life will never get any easier. Regardless, every now and then a movie comes along that can bring that high-stakes world to light. Leaving the scores of post-Depression, classic-era films out of this conversation, there aren’t a lot of modern era films that would top the NASDAQ, so here is my fast and loosely tied-in list of the Top 10 Modern Corporate Greed Movies.
10. The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Awash in fuzzy racial politics and confused performances, Brian De Palma didn’t make a great movie when he adapted Tom Wolfe’s book “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” What he did do was try to make America hate Tom Hanks—and then let promptly him off the hook. Hanks plays rich Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy, whose mistress (Melanie Griffith) panics when they are driving in the Bronx one night. She guns the engine and runs over a black man, putting him in a coma. Hanks’ character in the book is a real money-grubbing scuzball at the top of the social hierarchy, but the studio chose to make the film’s McCoy more sympathetic—taking all the bite out of the entire affair, and leaving a judge played by Morgan Freeman to lecture all the people that had benefited from McCoy’s very public downfall. Link to YouTube trailer.
From the Wolfe book: “On Wall Street he and a few others – how many? – three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? – had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe.”
9. Other People’s Money (1991)
Norman Jewison directed the racially-charged crime drama “In the Heat of the Night” to a Best Picture win in 1967, but his adaptation of the Jerry Sterner play “Other People’s Money” didn’t fare quite as well. Gregory Peck is the owner of a family business in danger of being overtaken by a ruthless corporate liquidator, played by Danny Devito. Peck puts his lawyer stepdaughter (Penelope Ann Miller) in charge of stalling the capitalist pig, and suddenly he can’t decide which he enjoys more—taking over companies or jousting romantically people who are pre-disposed to hate him. Peck gets to deliver a rousing speech about companies being worth more than just the price of their stock; they are places where you meet your friends and co-workers and earn a living and God help us if all it comes down to is money and blah blah blah. Here’s a link to a Danny Devito speech from the other side of the argument.
Lawrence Garfield: I love money. I love money more than the things it can buy. There’s only one thing I love more than money. You know what that is? Other people’s money!
8. Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)
OK, I told you there weren’t that many movies to choose from, so the bottom half of the list (top if you’re reading in the order you should be) is going to be a little light—like this surprising hit comedy about two guys who carry around the body of their dead boss all weekend, trying to convince everyone that he’s still alive. Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy are bottom-rung employees at an insurance company, sure, but Bernie isn’t. He’s the big man, and his corporate greed manifests itself in two things: stealing from his own company and doing drugs. The latter kills him, but not before he orders a hitman to kill our poor, desperate heroes. They prop his body up, dress him up, and toss him about in a series of hilarious misadventures too truly wacky to be described. Guess what? It’s a metaphor for the “decade of greed.” The rich and powerful in the 1980s become consumed by their quest for money and lost their souls, walking around like dead people. Maybe it’s time for a historical re-evaluation of “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Let’s start with the trailer.
Richard Parker: [at Bernie's beach house] Now you see, Larry? All of this could be yours if you set your goals and work hard.
Larry Wilson: My old man worked hard. All they did was give him more work.
7. Changing Lanes (2002)
This underrated drama has the same message as “Other People’s Money,” but doesn’t feel as obvious or preachy. Kudos to the two lead actors for not being afraid to play complex men who aren’t clean-cut good guy/bad guy types. Examining the blurry line between business ethics and moral guidelines, it pits a wealthy, white New York attorney (Ben Affleck) against a black insurance agent (Samuel L. Jackson) who is trying to secure custody of his kids. Both men act irresponsibly and illegally as their actions to hurt the other person escalate to an insane level. This animosity stems from an inconvenient fender bender on one very important morning for both men, but it’s clear that there is more at play than that as tensions continue to bubble to the surface. The movie raises all kinds of questions about who we are and what is important to us, and shows how easy it is to get caught up in the “game” of money. Trailer fun!
Doyle Gipson: Money. You… you think I want money? What I want is my morning back. I need you to give my time back to me. Can you give me back my time? Can you give my time back to me? Huh? Can you?
6. Wanda Whips Wall Street a.k.a. Stocks and Blondes (1982)
“Wanda Brandt (Veronica Hart) is a shrewd corporate takeover engineer. She plots to seize control of the most stable financial investment firm on Wall Street by sexually blackmailing all the corporate stockholders out of their holdings. Things get complicated for Wanda as the company president hires an investigator (Jamie Gillis) to determine the cause of the sudden instability of the stock. Wanda must seek help from her prior company’s secretary (Sharon Mitchell) and a stockbroker (Samantha Fox) to achieve her objective.” That is the description from imdb.com. Now I’m just making sure you’re paying attention. You may have guessed it from the title (definitely not the plot summary), but it looks like the adult film industry was about five years ahead of Oliver Stone on this one. Is it just me, or is that enough plot for three pornos? I haven’t actually seen this, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to include it—especially since mega porn superstud Ron Jeremy plays the character of “Ed, Lou’s assistant.” Trailer available on “Smut Palace Insanity” classic porn trailer DVD.
5. Trading Places (1983)
In this John Landis-directed comedy, the manager of a commodities broker firm (Dan Aykroyd) and a street hustler (Eddie Murphy) trade lots in life, all at the whim of two wealthy old geezers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who make a bet on which one will crack first.. Once the two beleaguered gentlemen catch wind of the real reason behind their changing fortunes, they hatch a very complicated plan to get rich through the stock market, while also taking the oldies down: “The best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people,” says Murphy. “Trading Places” has a lot of fun with the fish-out-of-water humor, but it’s actually quite a good character movie as well, otherwise it wouldn’t still be on TV all the time. Funny thing is— their grand scheme to short the market is still all a bunch of mumbo jumbo to me. It has something to do with the future’s market and insider trading, all of which have nothing to do with Jamie Lee Curtis’ bare breasts. Merry New Year!
Randolph Duke: Money isn’t everything, Mortimer.
Mortimer Duke: Oh, grow up.
Randolph Duke: Mother always said you were greedy.
Mortimer Duke: She meant it as a compliment.
4. American Psycho (2000)
If you’ve read my Top 10s very often, you’ll notice that I love dark satires, and this movie has appeared on a number of them lately. Well, here it is again: Proof that movies can actually be way better then the books they were based on. Mary Harron’s edgy “what-is-real?” thriller is a perfect over-the-top indictment set amidst the world of 1980s high finance and finds young investment broker Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) obsessing on all things fashionable and material in the Wall Street world. This includes his impeccable dress, the works of Huey Lewis and the News, and making sure that no blood spills anywhere unwanted in his apartment when killing a business rival with a chainsaw. The hollow 1980s yuppie is now the country’s worst nightmare—a remorseless serial killer who kills for fun. Red Band Trailer.
Patrick Bateman: There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable … I simply am not there.
3. Boiler Room (2000)
Remember a time when Vin Diesel was taken seriously as an actor and Ben Affleck took small, character-driven supporting roles? A time like that did actually exist, and in “Boiler Room,” Giovanni Ribisi played the lead, a college dropout who gets a job as a broker for an investment firm that turns out to be as crooked as Shannen Doherty’s eyes. A cross between the hard-reality salesman drama of “Glengarry Glen Ross” (Affleck’s character wants to be Alec Baldwin) and the rise-and-fall cautionary tale of “Wall Street” (Ribisi is Charlie Sheen, basically), the young, power-hungry characters in “Boiler Room” know both movies by heart and, in one scene, sit around and recite lines to “Wall Street” as if it were sacred text. One thing could have kept this surprisingly tense financial drama from being too much like its forefathers: an alternate ending in which one of the bilked customers comes to the firm armed and seeking revenge. Thankfully, writer/director Ben Younger kept it from veering into laughable territory and kept the ending smaller and more effective.
Seth Davis: I didn’t want to be an innovator any more, i just wanted to make the quick and easy buck, i just wanted in. The Notorious BIG said it best: “Either you’re slingin’ crack-rock, or you’ve got a wicked jump-shot.” Nobody wants to work for it anymore. There’s no honor in taking that after school job at Mickey Dee’s, honor’s in the dollar, kid. So I went the white boy way of slinging crack-rock: I became a stock broker.
2. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)
What could be more scary than the real thing? Documentary Oscar winner Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Darkside,” “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”) takes you on a guided tour of the innerworkings of one of the biggest corporate scandals in U.S. history in this scary and engrossing non-fiction film. Stock analysts talk about the specifics of what happened and why, but the frightening part is the heartlessness and hubris that comes so naturally from these pathological executives. Their motives are directed only by a pure-profit goal, and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” exposes the faces behind a Darwinian approach to big business; people like Jeffrey Skilling.
Kenneth Lay: [Q&A session with employees] All right, we are down to questions. And I got a few up here. [reads question from the floor]
‘I would like to know if you are on crack, if so that would explain a lot. If not, you may want to start because it’s going to be a long time before we trust you again.’
1. Wall Street (1987)
Big surprise here, eh? You know any movie with a main character named Bud Fox and a bad guy named Gordon Gekko is going to be real good. Michael Douglas won his Best Actor Oscar for playing the slimy, scruple-free Gekko, who famously proclaimed that “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Watch the speech here. Set within the insider trading scandals of 1985, this Oliver Stone-directed film may be short on subtlety, but it has no shortage of memorable moments and really encapsulates what this moment in time during the Reagan administration was like. Envisioned as a sort of “Crime and Punishment” on Wall Street, Charlie Sheen plays Fox, the corrupted stockbroker who goes finds the allure of easy money too difficult to resist. As Sheen’s materialistic girlfriend, Daryl Hannah is an unconvincing cliché, but Stone makes the wheeling and dealing of illegal trading come to life even as its intricacies continue to puzzle. It also introduced me to my favorite Talking Heads song, “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” which played over the closing credits. Suspicious sequel news: Supposedly, there is a sequel called “Money Never Sleeps” in preproduction now, in which Douglas will reprise his role. Stone and Sheen, however, have nothing to do with it.
Gekko: I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them. The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.