Other People's Money: Beyond business stereotypes
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 - and he's absolutely 100% right. 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.
Larry "The Liquidator" Garfield's speech to the stockholders:
Garfield: Amen. And amen. And amen. You have to forgive me. I'm not familiar with the local custom. Where I come from, you always say "Amen" after you hear a prayer. Because that's what you just heard -- a prayer. Where I come from, that particular prayer is called "The Prayer for the Dead." You just heard The Prayer for the Dead, my fellow stockholders, and you didn't say, "Amen."
This company is dead. I didn't kill it. Don't blame me. It was dead when I got here. It's too late for prayers. For even if the prayers were answered, and a miracle occurred, and the yen did this, and the dollar did that, and the infrastructure did the other thing, we would still be dead. You know why? Fiber optics. New technologies. Obsolescence. We're dead alright. We're just not broke. And you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow but sure.
You know, at one time there must've been dozens of companies makin' buggy whips. And I'll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company? You invested in a business and this business is dead. Let's have the intelligence, let's have the decency to sign the death certificate, collect the insurance, and invest in something with a future.
"Ah, but we can't," goes the prayer. "We can't because we have responsibility, a responsibility to our employees, to our community. What will happen to them?" I got two words for that: Who cares? Care about them? Why? They didn't care about you. They sucked you dry. You have no responsibility to them. For the last ten years this company bled your money. Did this community ever say, "We know times are tough. We'll lower taxes, reduce water and sewer." Check it out: You're paying twice what you did ten years ago. And our devoted employees, who have taken no increases for the past three years, are still making twice what they made ten years ago; and our stock -- one-sixth what it was ten years ago.
Who cares? I'll tell ya: Me. I'm not your best friend. I'm your only friend. I don't make anything? I'm makin' you money. And lest we forget, that's the only reason any of you became stockholders in the first place. You wanna make money! You don't care if they manufacture wire and cable, fried chicken, or grow tangerines! You wanna make money! I'm the only friend you've got. I'm makin' you money.
Take the money. Invest it somewhere else. Maybe, maybe you'll get lucky and it'll be used productively. And if it is, you'll create new jobs and provide a service for the economy and, God forbid, even make a few bucks for yourselves. And if anybody asks, tell 'em ya gave at the plant.
And by the way, it pleases me that I am called "Larry the Liquidator." You know why, fellow stockholders? Because at my funeral, you'll leave with a smile on your face and a few bucks in your pocket. Now that's a funeral worth having!
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