Other People's Money

Just when you thought it was safe to go to the movies without having to watch yet another heartless, avaricious executive, along comes Other People’s Money. In this adaptation of Jerry Sterner’s 1987 play, screenwriter Alvin Sargent and director Norman Jewison put forth the revelatory notion that greed is bad, that American corporate raiders care about nothing but money, and that none of this is good news for those of us who don’t happen to work on Wall Street and earn seven-figure salaries. Whew! And you thought the movie was going predictable!

Lawrence J. Garfield (Danny DeVito) is a feisty, obsessive corporate raider who wakes up and says ”Good morning, honey” to the computer next to his bed. Looking for a new company to purchase and destroy, he fixes his sights on New England Wire & Cable, a medium-size Rhode Island factory run by the Capraesque Jorgy (Gregory Peck), a proudly old-fashioned entrepreneur who loves his workers and doesn’t much care about maximizing profits. Jorgy is no match for an expert liquidator like Garfield, and he’s too stubborn to make a deal. Instead, he hires the toughest lawyer he knows: Kate Sullivan (Penelope Ann Miller), a stealthy negotiator who glides around on killer legs — and, not so incidentally, the daughter of his longtime companion (Piper Laurie).

Kate figures that the only way to outfox the implacable, cutthroat Garfield is to blend the usual boardroom hardball with vixenish flirtartion. Speaking in the smooth, breathy tones of a purring dominatrix, she leads him on, and he’s so smitten, so attracted by the notion of a sexy woman who loves wheeling and dealing as much as he does, that he keeps making small concessions.

At least, I think that’s the idea. When the nasty sparks are flying, Other People’s Money seems promising, like a high-finance His Girl Friday. DeVito, playing a kind of satirical version of Gordon Gekko, gives a broadly entertaining performance, echoing the gleeful, matter-of-fact malice he had in Ruthless People. He does his specialties: Flashing the grin of a naughty 8-year-old, hitting the final word in a sentence with a percussive punch (his vocal rhythm could almost be a parody of comic timing).

After a while, though, the characters stop making sense: They’re like cartoons of spitefulness whom someone halfheartedly tried to turn into human beings. Garfield, for instance, is a closet romantic who genuinely loves Kate. We can tell, because he keeps offering her flat, sincere compliments like ”You look very nice today!” Near the end, when he speaks at a stockholders’ meeting, even his lust for liquidation is given a sound, provocative rationale — which would be fine, except that we thought we were watching a movie about Danny DeVito as a sleazy, infantile corporate munchkin.

The character of Kate is even stranger. At first, she acts sexy, trying to win Garfield over. Then she starts to fall, ever so slightly, for his advances. But this just seem nuts, considering that Garfield is the man who’s trying to wreck Jorgy’s company, and that his idea of seduction is to phone her in the middle of the night and serenade her with a seesawing violin rendition of ”I’m in the Mood for Love.” Miller has a ravishing presence — there’s a hint of Marilyn in her blissful smile — but what she’s playing isn’t a character so much as a mishmash of types (man-eating lady lawyer, honey-voiced tease, and so on).

Other’s People Money feels like a black comedy that’s been defanged. I never saw the play on stage, but Sargent and Jewison, obviously aware that the go-go ’80s are a fading memory, appear to have bent over backwards to turn the movie into an earnest, cautionary comedy. The filmmakers end up giving short shrift to the very appetites they’re trying to satirize. They’re so busy telling us greed is bad that they forgot to make it fun. C

Other People's Money
  • Movie
  • 103 minutes