With the upcoming release of the Martin Scorcese flick Wolf of Wall Street, we can (possibly) expect another entry into the pantheon of great movies about the world of finance. In anticipation of the film's release, we thought it would be fun to go around the office and poll the editorial team on their favorite scenes from "Wall Street" movies of the past, and talk about why those scenes resonated.
A couple caveats: one, we are using the term "Wall Street" as a metonym for finance, and have included several films that don't take place in the physical center of finance in downtown Manhattan. Two, we didn't include any scenes from the movie Wall Street. Suppose that would have been too easy, or maybe just we've heard the "greed is good" speech enough already (it's still great.)
With that out of the way, here's our favorites:
Trading Places -- "Sounds to Me Like You Guys are a Couple of Bookies"
Sports betting remains illegal in 49 of the 50 states. If you want to place a bet on the Jaguars beating the Cardinals this Sunday (I would not), you have to head for Nevada. Or a web site based in Costa Rica or Antigua. Or that guy Jimmy who doesn't have an office and works out of a bar called "Mitch's." Of course, if you want to place a bet on the direction the marginal interest rates in Nigeria are headed, there's no real legal issue.
But ultimately, are these two things so different? In both cases, the bettor is assuming risk and their potential gains are directly proportional to the amount of risk being assumed. You have hunches based on the data available, you play them, and if you're right more than you're wrong you make money. In fact, potentially the biggest difference between speculating on the outcome of an NFL game and the daily movements of the VIX Index is that the factors affecting the NFL game's outcome are infinitely simpler.
Leave it to a classic comedy, Trading Places, to point out the obvious: the divide between gambling and trading isn't nearly as large as some of us would like to think. The key scene being when the Duke brothers explain the nature of commodities trading to Billy Ray Valentine. This clip is priceless for a few reasons, not the least of which is the priceless look Valentine shoots the camera as Randolph Duke explains to him, dripping with condescension, that bacon is in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. However, it's the final two lines that really say it all.
Margin Call – “Fat Cats and Starving Dogs”
In 2011’s Margin Call, two Wall Street executives – one relieved, one racked with guilt – weigh in the day after their investment bank successfully unloaded billions in toxic CDOs on unsuspecting rivals, knowing full well the assets were actually worthless. While Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) regrets ripping off their colleagues and worries they caused a financial catastrophe, CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) argues crashes are a natural part of the system, and they are just doing what it takes to survive.
As a charming, wine-sipping metaphor for capitalism, Irons nails the pragmatic Tuld, a man who argues a banker's job is to "merely react" to history’s never-ending cycle of boom and bust: “We make a lot of money if we get it right, and we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong… there will always be fat cats and starving dogs.”
Fun With Dick and Jane -- "Globodyne Meltdown"
“I think CEOs sell their stocks for many reasons Sam, both professional and personal”
By the time Columbia Pictures’ 2005 comedy Fun with Dick and Jane hit the box office, Jim Carrey’s skill in playing twitch-prone, ham-fisted characters was perhaps already past its prime. But it was probably the ideal match for one scene in particular, when his character Dick Harper makes his first televised appearance after being promoted to VP of communications for his company, Globodyne.
A thinly veiled approximation of Enron, it has just been discovered that Globodyne has been cooking the books all along, information to which Harper was clearly not privy when he was just another mid-level employee. He expects his interview on the cable news show Money Life to be a cordial exchange of scripted talking-points, when in reality he has been duped into becoming the human face of the company’s criminal excesses.
The key moment in the scene is when the host asks him straight away about what he makes of the fact Globodyne’s CEO has just liquidated a large amount of his stock. Carrey’s signature jitteriness is perfectly suited to the boilerplate euphemism and obfuscation of Harper’s answer, and the distinction between "professional" and "personal" sounds like an awkward sexual innuendo.
More important than Jim Carrey though, it is a snide, even vicious mockery of the fork-tongued language of public relations, no less an indictment of a press that would accept it as face value.
The only thing better about this scene is when Ralph Nader, played by himself, is invited onto the show to flesh out the interview. If only this sort of situation did not have to be imagined...
Boiler Room – "Reco Closing Sale"
I like what a raw interpretation this scene is of what being in a brokerage “chop shop” is actually like. I’ve never seen a chop shop (in person), but you hear stories about how the euphoria builds when they’re making these tremendous amounts of money.
This scene shows a much darker side of the industry: the euphoria of capitalism, juxtaposed with its deep underbelly.
Pursuit of Happyness – “Wear a Shirt Tomorrow, OK?”
Leave it to Will Smith to melt America’s heart with a Wall Street movie. But cutesy typos and nepotistic casting decisions aside, it’s hard not to get just a little choked up watching the payoff scene in Pursuit of Happyness. It helps that the film is based on the real-life, rags-to-riches story of Chris Gardner, a single father who battled homelessness to become a successful stockbroker and entrepreneur.
In the wrong hands, the movie could’ve turned into The Internship, which essentially covered the same storyline with considerably less deft. But Happyness, for the most part, managed to tug at the right heart strings without coming off as pandering. That’s important too, because America’s relationship with Wall Street has always been touch-and-go at best. So it’s nice to be reminded that, before he retired into his second career pumping Jaden and Willow’s rise to stardom, the Prince of Freshness once upon time used his powers to help bridge that gap between Wall Street and Main Street just a little bit closer.
And Two Classics We All Like…
American Psycho – “Oh My God, it Even Has a Watermark”
American Psycho is a disturbing, over-the-top satire of 80s excess and status obsession. In this clip, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) has a panic attack as he realizes the imperceptibly different business card of a rival is better than his.
The scene’s juxtaposition of sheer panic and absolute triviality is funny enough, but what makes it really sing is how straight everyone plays it. Life and death is irrelevant – all that really matters in the world of American Psycho is being (actually, appearing to be) the most sophisticated guy in the room.
Other People’s Money – “The Best Buggy Whip You Ever Saw”
In the uneven, but still often delightful Other People’s Money, Danny DeVito plays a corporate raider vying to break up and sell off a moribund cable manufacturer. After the company’s CEO (Gregory Peck) gives a rousing speech at a shareholder meeting defending the business, touting their integrity and previous triumph over adversity, DeVito counters that the company is “already dead, they just don’t know it yet.”
DeVito argues that companies that make high-quality products tend to grab an ever-increasing larger share of a doomed market, instead of selling out while they still have cash. He uses the largely dead industry of buggy whip manufacturing as an example, saying “At one time there must have been dozens of companies making buggy whips. And I bet the last company around was the one who made the best (expletive) buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would have you liked to have been a shareholder in that company?”
What was your favorite Wall Street scene?
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