Other People's Money on the surface seems like another throwaway early 90's comedy (it even has a musical score that is eerily reminiscent of comedies like Trading Places and films of that ilk); however, here is a film with two performances that standout as highlights in pretty established careers, and a satire that seems spot-on for the economic situation we find ourselves in today. The film is a mix of ideals: it's part Oliver Stone's Wall Street and part Frank Capra film. Both sides getting their say and both philosophies – thanks to the acting – sounding reasonable. Here's a film that surprised me mostly because I totally forgot about it. It's a film that has gone forgotten by most, but deserves a new audience in this decade of Capitalism run amok.
The film centers around Larry "The Liquidator" Garfield (brilliantly played by Danny DeVito) who makes a living buying and selling businesses with little regard. He's the typical heartless Capitalist depicted in films like this; however, DeVito plays him with a kind of sadistic charm. That's the key to this film because Larry is interested in buying up a family owned steel and wire company owned by Andrew "Jorgie" Jorgenson. He's the kind of owner who takes pride in his companies humble beginning, and he's also the type of owner who works in the mill and knows each of his employees names (established in a wonderful opening scene that juxtaposes the introduction of Freddy, who is by himself in his office addressing the camera, and "Jorgy" who is with his community of workers hobnobbin' with them before they take a staff Christmas picture). And who else could play a character like this but Gregory Peck. Of course we immediately associate Peck with his most fatherly role, Atticus Finch, and here he exudes that same kind of paternal comfort and ethos that exudes old time Americana.
Jorgy is concerned about the interest Freddy is taking in his company, and in order to deter Freddy he brings in his step-daughter Kate (the always likeable Penelope Ann Miller) to help combat Freddy's buyout plan. This is where things get sticky, though, as Kate and Freddy have a not-so-overt interest in each other. He likes the way she talks to him and she is charmed by him because that's what he does best: speaks plainly and charms people. What the film does so well is set up the dichotomy of these differieng views on the Free Market and then place the more middle-grounded Kate in between them. This gives the characters degrees besides the obvious one is good because he's Gregory peck and the other is bad because he's Danny DeVito.
Larry is one of DeVito's greatest characters. He's smarter than he comes off as – which is usually boorish, an Ugly American – as we can sense something beneath the Capitalistic exterior that is constantly guzzling donuts and coffee; he even utters a truism about donuts that acts as an all-too-true metaphor for Capitalism when he says: "why do you have to be hungry to want a donut?" This is an interesting Capitalistic ideal that rang true when the film came out in 1992 and still rings true today.
There's also an interesting moment when Kate and Larry are negotiating – business and pleasure – over dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Larry all at once acts so aloof, again putting up the façade of the Ugly American, by asking for a knife and fork for his sushi, and some bread to eat. He then goes on to give a great speech about how we bombed the Japanese in the war and they learned to start over, go back to school and learn how to "take over the world", and how American's got fat and lazy by starting to enjoy the good life. He continues his rant by saying that now the Japanese are the leaders of the business world, and America is full of dropouts…and that's why he has his whole office learning Japanese. It's one of the few moments where we get to go inside Larry's head and see what he believes him…he's not a good businessman just because he's ruthless. After he and Kate finish their deal she leaves the dinner and Larry picks up the chopsticks and begins using them and speaking in Japanese to the waitress. He is a master of deception and an extremely smart man…this is why he is so good making money.
Things have changed for Jorgy, and the world – both personal and business – that he was once so sure of seems alien to him. The film is brilliant in showing the two sides of how to look at running a business. It's as if the film was made by both Frank Capra and Gordon Gecko. It's why the ending moment with the speeches to the stock holders is so wonderful: both sides get their say. In most movies the filmmakers would have been happy ending with Peck's Capraesque speech, but then Larry gets up and makes his speech, and for how ruthless he is and how intent he is on making people faceless when he acquires the company, his plan – within the system – makes sense too. It's why the casting of DeVito is so brilliant. He's the only person who could play Larry. He plays the smarmy, fast-talking Larry perfectly (there's also something more genuine inside in regards to his courting Kate) and is perfectly juxtaposed with the tall, deep-voiced and grandpa-like Peck. Both actors have a distinct presence on the screen, and the casting here is just dead-on, especially in those final moments when both give their speeches. It's probably one of the most criminally forgotten (or unseen) moments for each actor, and it's a shame because they've rarely been better than they are in this scene.
The film seems like just another insignificant early 90's comedy that – on the surface – feels like a holdover from the slew of 80's comedies like Trading Places; however, appearances can be deceiving, and Other People's Money is a film with insights on Capitalism that still ring true today. The film runs like a well-oiled machine with its direction from old pro Norman Jewison and photography from master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and sometimes that can make a film forgettable when it flows with such ease.
Other People's Money has a moment at the very end that is too conventional and keeps it from being a forgotten masterpiece, but the previous 90 minutes of the film is something that deserves to be discovered – especially considering our current economic situation – and contains two lead performances that are so good it's a shame that they have been swept under the rug of obscurity and late night premium cable (I caught this on Starz at 2am). It contains one of Devito's best performances I can think of, and the curiosity of its final scene aside (I like what Roger Ebert said when he questioned why the producers had to "put a smiley face" on the ending), it's a satire that is pointed and seems timely today. It's a movie that is just begging to be rediscovered.