Other People's Money (United States, 1991)

March 15, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Other People's Money Poster

Other People’s Money, the motion picture adaptation of Jerry Sterner’s 1989 play, opens with a deliciously cynical monologue by Danny DeVito that captures public perceptions from the era: “I love money. I love money more than I love the things it can buy. Does that surprise you? Money, it don't care whether I'm good or not. It don't care whether I snore or not. It don't care which god I pray to. There are only three things in this world with that kind of unconditional acceptance: dogs, doughnuts and money. Only money is better. You know why? Because it don't make you fat and it don't poop all over the living room floor. There's only one thing I like better: Other people's money.”

Any synergy with Oliver Stone’s iconic 1987 film Wall Street is not coincidental. DeVito’s Lawrence Garfield is a more gauche, less charismatic version of Gordon Gekko. Larry “The Liquidator” would undoubtedly agree with Gekko’s signature line: “Greed is good.” Throughout the 1980s (and beyond), Wall Street was a cesspool of corruption. At one time, Hollywood gave us films about moralistic outsiders like Mr. Smith doing the right thing. By 1991, it had become fashionable to give the anti-hero the spotlight and occasionally the victory.

There have been many stories about bad apples in the financial market – those who steal the inheritances of widows and squander it without a second thought. What differentiates Other People’s Money is that, when you listen to the argument presented by the selfish, greedy bastard, it’s harder to refute than the one presented by the upright, righteous man. Director Norman Jewison refuses to make it easy on the viewer. Lawrence isn’t a villain in the traditional sense of the word because there’s a solid rationale behind his actions that has everything to do with making money for the stockholders. That’s you, me, and everyone else who invests in a retirement portfolio. His avarice defends our interests.

The movie is set up as a struggle between Larry the Liquidator, the Manhattan-based predator, and Jorgy (Gregory Peck in his final feature film role), the salt-of-the-earth president of New England Wire & Cable. Larry, who already owns a chunk of the company’s stock, decides that it’s undervalued. The way to make a killing is to get rid of the wire & cable division, which is running at a loss, and keep everything else. Jorgy, defending the livelihood of his employees, won’t hear of it. Undaunted, Lawrence starts the proceedings that will lead to a hostile takeover. Jorgy brings on board his daughter Kate (Penelope Ann Miller doing her best Melanie Griffith impersonation), a high-priced New York lawyer, to defend his company. She visits Lawrence and turns on the charm. He is smitten but being in love isn’t enough to derail his business interests. The movie climaxes with both men presenting their cases ahead of a tense vote.

Unfortunately, Other People’s Money runs for one scene too long and that epilogue, once watched, can’t be unseen. It’s the classic happy ending to a movie that has no business singing Kumbaya. I don’t know the story behind why the scene was filmed, much less included. Was it forced in over Jewison’s objections? Was it the director’s idea? Was it in the original play? Whoever was responsible should be ashamed of himself – by going where it goes, it undermines the movie’s themes and dramatic thrust. Worst, it feels artificial. It’s not a long scene but it does considerable damage. In his contemporaneous review of the movie, Roger Ebert agreed with this assessment, calling it “…tacked on, manufactured, [and] concocted out of a Hollywood studio’s knee-jerk need to provide a smileyface ending…”

Other People’s Money features some playful chemistry between the unlikeliest-of-unlikely couples: the short, squat DeVito and the tall, chic Miller. Of course, coming three years after Twins, this isn’t the oddest screen pairing to feature the former Taxi star. Although the movie has a serious message and takes a dark turn, it does so with a comedic edge. DeVito’s dialogue is ripe with one-liners and he delivers each with relish. His timing is impeccable for both his physicality and verbal exchanges. Wall Street is a very serious film. Other People’s Money is no less forceful in its denunciation of a bankrupt culture but it allows the audience to laugh along the way.

Watching Other People’s Money more than a quarter-century after its release can be something of an eye-opener. Lawrence is presented as a basically good guy with the fatal flaw of greed. Oh, and there’s some sexism on the side. In 1991, the latter characteristic wouldn’t have gotten much notice. But watch the movie in the post #metoo era and it’s a different matter. Suddenly, the sexism stands out like a proverbial sore thumb. Jewison wanted us to be torn about Lawrence – to despise his ethics even though we might like to hang out with him. (That’s why casting an everyman like DeVito was a stroke of genius.) But it’s difficult to like the guy when we see how callously he treats women and how inappropriate he is in his dealings with Kate. An orgasm contest? She gives as good as she gets but there’s a vibe to Lawrence that wouldn’t have been apparent at the time when the movie was released. That makes Other People’s Money a time capsule of how things were.

Other People’s Money isn’t difficult to watch although it hasn’t gone down in history as a successful production. The critics didn’t much like it and the general movie-going public didn’t rush out to see it. Nevertheless, perhaps because we’ve gone through so much stock market turmoil since then and some of what Lawrence does fits perfectly with the story told in The Big Short, it’s hard to dismiss this movie as a trifle. The last scene undoubtedly hurts the movie as a whole but there are enough good things – from DeVito’s performance to the speeches to the loving shots of the Twin Towers – to warrant a look for those who may have dismissed the film in 1991 or who never saw it.

Other People's Money (United States, 1991)

Director: Norman Jewison
Cast: Danny DeVito, Gregory Peck, Penelope Ann Miller, Piper Laurie, Dean Jones
Home Release Date: 2020-03-15
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, based on the play by Jerry Sterner
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Music: David Newman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1991-10-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1