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Other People’s Money: Beyond business stereotypes

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For starters, Other People’s Money has a really sharp script, based on an off Broadway play. A movie about the philosophy of market economics might not sound likely to be dramatically interesting, but they built this around strong characters and plot. They mostly show, not tell. It turns out to be a charming romantic comedy with a lot of philosophical nuance.

Danny DeVito stars as Larry the Liquidator, a corporate raider who makes money for his shareholders by finding badly run companies with strong assets, and getting rid of the dead weight.

Gregory Peck plays his counterpart, Andrew Jorgenson. Jorgenson runs an old family business, New England Wire and Cable Company. As an old New England stalwart, he sees himself as the paternalistic protector of his workers and community. The larger corporation overall is doing great, but the original business, the factory, has been losing bunches of money. Yet Jorgenson insists on keeping the thing open, losing big money day after day.

Larry wants to get control of the company and shut down the white elephant factory, spinning off the other assets in an economically rational manner. Naturally, he gets portrayed in the community as a bad guy who doesn’t care about the poor workers.

This all comes to a head eventually in a stockholders meeting. Old Jorgenson gives his pitch to the stockholders with all the classic nice community minded arguments. He’s all Frank Capra. The argument was well written, and of course Gregory Peck puts it across to maximum effect. No one could have done it better, give or take absolutely Jimmy Stewart himself.

Then Larry comes on and, by any rational judgment, destroys his sentimental arguments. He goes right into where a corporate executives real responsibilities lie, ie the shareholders who have trusted them with their money. By his way of thinking, Jorgenson does not own the company, he just runs it for other people. Therefore, Jorgenson has no right to indulge his nostalgia for a bygone era by mismanaging other people’s money.

It’s as if you’re having a nice wonderful life heading to it’s pre-ordained nice conclusion- except that Mr. Potter has something to say in his own defense. He likes to joke about how much he enjoys playing with “other people’s money”, but he turns out to have very strong ideals. Indeed, he will fulfill his responsibility to his own stockholders even though it means public villification, even at the expense of losing love.

In the middle of all this, Larry finds himself madly in love with Jorgenson’s step-daughter/lawyer. This major element of the film gives the entry way into some of the inevitably slightly more complicated realities behind the nice exteriors of a major publicly traded corporation.

She understands his integrity and straightforward honesty, even as she’s fighting him tooth and nail. It’s quite a sweet romance. It stands as testament to Danny DeVito’s skills and charm that this leggy young hottie seems credibly attracted to, well, Danny DeVito.

Some critics, notably Roger Ebert, have criticized the happy final scene, added to the story of the original play. I can understand an argument about following out Larry’s logic, even though it would mean the loss of jobs for the factory workers.

What these critics do not get, however, that Larry certainly would is that markets are dynamic. If you quit tying up assets in outmoded and unproductive uses, more and better opportunities might show up. That’s just how a market economy is supposed to work. This is besides all the other jobs that will be created in other places. I can see how you might see the exact way it plays out here as being a little too convenient, tied up with a ribbon and bow. Still, the general idea makes sense.

Just before his passing, the American Film Institute picked Gregory Peck’s role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as the greatest heroic role in cinema history. The great white liberal lawyer has come to save the black man. Yeah, yeah.

For my money, Peck did perhaps his best work in Other People’s Money.

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  • It’s like Risky Business, the original endings would provide more of a moral lesson, but the general public prefers a happy ending. It would have been interesting to see an alternate ending to Other People’s Money (I don’t know if the dvd has one or not) though.