11 January 2012

9 Films About Money

(Edward Hopper's New York Movie)
The scene of a couple hunched over the kitchen table, sorting through the bills and balancing the checkbook is familiar enough reality for most people, but on the screen it seems to to be represented mostly in commercials for politicians and tax attorneys. In fiction, do we need a break from household financial  drudgery?

In our popular culture, the familiar incantation is "People go to the movies to escape!"  From what, exactly, the masses are fleeing is tough to pin down, and no doubt changes with the times.  But for Americans, one issue seems to be almost deliberately elided on the silver screen: Money. 

The independent film circuit showcases a number of ventures into these areas, but Hollywood tends to shy away.  Outside of releases in the heist and crime genres, it is the rare major motion picture in which money fuels engine of the plot, or serves as an overarching antagonistic force which helps the film thematically.

After critic and blogger Tom Garvey asked about popular movies that use money as a driving force, I took a look through the past 30 years or so of popular film. 

Indeed, there are no films that use money and class in precisely the same way the novelists  Eliot, Trollop or even our American giant of that era Henry James did.

However, there are a few mega-hits in which money is consistent and conspicuous in both plot and theme.  These are films that appear in the box office range of #1-20 or so for their given years.  

(The Country Club as societal microcosm.)
This 1980 film sits atop the pantheon of movie comedies, and its tagline - "The snobs versus the slobs " - is just as famous.  It is a still a delight to watch Ted Knight's smug, privileged judge being slowly driven insane by Rodney Dangerfield's boorish, working-class climber.  However, we sometimes forget that the real plot of the film involves Danny, a young caddy trying to get some money to attend college,  ingratiating himself to the wealthier members.   

(Marrying well? )
Dudley Moore's iconic performance as the alcoholic multi-millionaire playboy does not age as fast as the rest of the movie does, (nor does Sir John Gielgud's turn as the understated butler.)  However, the other thing that remains fresh about this comedy of attraction between classes, is the way money is talked about quite openly by Arthur and the object of his affection, Liza Minelli.  When the chips are down, and it looks like Minelli won't be marrying into Arthur's family fortune, her father weeps like a baby.

Trading Places (1983)

 Another comedy from the eighties.  Mortimer and Randolph Duke perform a Pygmalion-like social experiment by switching the financial fortunes of two very different individuals.  When Dan Aykroyd's lock-jawed, Harvard-educated broker loses his money, he becomes persona non grata, almost immediately.  Eddie Murphy's hustler is given entree, a nice home and a great salary and goes on to succeed admirably. We also get a lesson in commodities trading, (video above) prompting a memorable breaking of the fourth wall by Murphy

(Like father?)

Oliver Stone's slight homage to the classic film Sweet Smell of Success, introduced us to Gordon Gekko. Some argue that rather than simply reflecting the reality of arrogant traders, the movie served as a kind of Dress for Success manual for the corporate raiders and hedge fund wizards of the next few decades. (In a smart scene in the 2000 film BoilerRoom, group of young brokers sit around watching Wall Street and mimicking of Michael Douglas's iconic performance.)  Budd Foxx, Gekko's protege, starts off the film asking his Dad, a blue collar worker for a small airline, for money to support him in his apprenticeship in New York City. 

(The best shot in the film.)
The War of the Roses may be the darkest film on this list and it's a comedy!  I recently re-watched it and couldn't imagine it being made today.  It approaches that kind of fiction about class and money that reigned in the novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We are dazzled by the beauty and wealth of the Roses, but then we are flinching at the deadly battles over the couple's communal wealth.

(Sweet dreams, America?)

Ah yes, this movie prompted so much public discussion, outrage and dismissal at the time.  Roger Ebert correctly places it in that class of films that put acceptable people in unacceptable situations so that we can safely watch it play out . For instance, the idea of a lonely businessman hiring a hooker is a pretty unsavory prospect for a night at the theater, but looking at Richard Gere and Julia Roberts amidst high society ain't so bad.  Still there was something so delightfully wicked about Robert Redford, (of The Great Gatsby fame,) confidently proposing that anybody can be bought. 

(Into the financial abyss.)
"Show me the money!"  Indeed. Tom Cruise's idealistic sports agent finds himself immediately down on his luck after he is ousted from a top agency.  Coming along with him to form a start-up is a single mom (Renee Zelwegger) who, inspired by Cruise's farewell speech, leaves her good job as an accountant at the former firm.  Soon, the two of them find their bank accounts drained and their hopes for a financial and romantic future pinned on their one free agent client.

The Perfect Storm (2000)
(A life and death decision.)
The 90-foot wave that threatens to swallow the crew of the Andrea Gail in this disaster epic is nothing compared to the debts, bills and lost wages that are awaiting the fishermen back on shore.  What drives George Clooney's crew ever further into the Atlantic?  The promise of a big catch and more money.  And, tragically, this is also what drives them back into the fateful storm.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
(A true light of hope in a bleak film.)
This was supposed to be the Rocky of urban class issues, but audiences tended to leave the theater in shock.  The relentless penury of Will Smith's aspiring stockbroker pushed viewers and some critics to the edge.  THIS is what it takes to pull yourself up from the grasp of poverty?  While watching in amazement at the resourcefulness of the protagonist, it still made many people ask: "Isn't there an easier way for a man like this to succeed?"

So there you have it.  Some big hit films about money.  I also noticed some things about hit films and how they handle class - specifically comedies.  More about that soon.

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