Crazy financial things are happening in the world! Something about China and the DOW and things I honestly don’t have the time, patience, or inclination to understand. What I do know is that the financial world is in a confused uproar and that important things are happening. The one thing that seems clear, from both real life and the movie world, is that high finance is a tricky, dangerous, and risky business and that those involved are constantly navigating the high stress world of the moral quagmires associated with money. While the people in the following movies love walking the wire, it does not sound like a fun job to me.
Trading Places (1983)
This is the movie I think of when I think of Wall Street – a couple of Statler and Waldorf type tycoons who make a bet when they switch the lives of a smarmy investor (Dan Aykroyd) and a crafty con artist (Eddie Murphy). Throw in the street smart prostitute as played by Jamie Lee Curtis and you have a ridiculous romp that turns into a heist movie. This is a movie that could only be made in the eighties, with about as high a comedy pedigree as you could get at the time. When I think of investing, I always think about Eddie Murphy explaining why the price of pork bellies is going to keep dropping and about the rich, racist jerks who changed two lives forever over a dollar bet.
Wall Street (1987)
Remember when Charlie Sheen was a dramatic actor? Well this was his first big movie following his star turn in Platoon (1986) and he’s got some high powered co-stars to help him along – including Michael Douglas, Daryl Hannah, James Spader, and his dad Martin Sheen. The movie is about Bud Fox, a young and ambitious stockbroker who ends up under the wing of the unscrupulous Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) when he provides him with insider trading information. For a while, Bud seems to have everything he ever wanted, but the payment for his sins start to close in on him fast – with the scheming Gekko on one side and the Securities and Exchange Commission on the other.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
This over-the-top and tediously long Scorsese film features Leonardo DiCaprio in another desperate bid for the best actor Oscar. The first twenty minutes are pretty good and cleverly sets up the entire penny-trading scheme on which DiCaprio bases his entire hedonistic empire. Unfortunately, this is as good as the movie gets. Their outrageous exploits entertain for a while, but quickly grow tiresome – which I suppose is the point. All the money in the world isn’t going to make your life any more meaningful if your only goal is wealth. The particulars of how that money is made was far more interesting to me than the actual making of the money, because of the method is so subtle and fun. The devil is in the details, after all. Also, who knew that Matthew McConaughey would ever be the best thing about a movie?
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Based on the Tom Wolfe novel about the lives of the New York elite and the deep rift separating them from the common classes, this very-90s drama stars Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Kim Cattrall, Melanie Griffith, and Morgan Freeman. While the film was a critical and commercial failure, it is a wonderfully absurd and campy film – which is no surprise considering it was directed by Brian De Palma. Hanks plays a high powered Wall Street investor who is living the good life until his mistress commits a hit-and-run and blames it on him. Bruce Willis plays the drunken and swaggering journalist Peter Fallow who eventually helps Hanks clear his name.
Margin Call (2011)
This films is notable partly for its cast, which consists of some impressive high powered names like Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, and Stanley Tucci mixed in with some interesting recognizables like Zachary Quinto, Aasif Mandvi, Simon Baker, and Mary McDonnell. The premise is that a company finds out that they are in impending danger of losing more money than the company is actually worth unless they sell off the toxic shares. These shares are worthless, so pushing them on their clients is both unethical and ultimately harmful to the company’s reputation. The discussions go on into the night as revelations are made about who might have known the company was in trouble, for how long, and why is was covered up. The movie basically presents a single crisis in the midst of the financial crash of 2007-08.
American Psycho (2000)
This is perhaps one of my favorite movies about the high powered financial world and about just how much of a psychopath you have to be to be really good at your job. Christian Bale plays Patrick Bateman, an ultimately faceless and generic businessman who imparts meaningless and trite information about his life while he fantasizes about going on a murderous rampage. Bateman works hard to fit in, to be the epitome of what a high powered investor should be, to be likable and memorable enough to maintain relationships, but controversial enough to be inoffensively impressive. But no one knows who Bateman really is because everything he says and presents is a facade. Whether Bateman’s murderous fantasies are brought on by the stress of maintaining the facade or whether that’s just who Bateman really is underneath the facade is another question entirely. No scene sums up the dichotomy between mask and self than the scene in which Bateman enthusiastically discusses Huey Lewis and the News while preparing to murder his co-worker with an axe.