The 8 Ball 12.31.13: Top 8 White Collar Crime Films
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 12.31.2013
From Wall Street and Office Space to Trading Places, Glengarry Glen Ross and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down the top 8 white collar crime films of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
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Top 8 White Collar Crime Films
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the Movie Zone 8 Ball! I hope that everyone enjoyed their holiday time last weekend. The year is nearly over and that means a host of Oscar contenders have been set out for public consumption. Among those is Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, which opened on Christmas Day. The film is based on the real-life actions of Jordan Belfort, who was indicted in 1998 for securities fraud and money laundering. That brings us to this week's 8 Ball. White collar crime is a popular topic for Hollywood film; there are few places that seem more corrupt than the rich and powerful, and those often make for great stories. This week I thought we could take a look back at some of the more enjoyable examples of white collar crimes on film.
Caveat: Just in case there are those unfamiliar with the particulars of the term, let's define "white collar crime." The term is used to describe financially-motivated and non-violent crimes committed by business and government professionals. That sets down pretty firmly the kinds of criminal acts we're speaking of, and I chose to focus on films that center around those crimes instead of having just a tangential link. For example, American Psycho has some white collar crime in it, but the narrative doesn't focus on that as much as it does Patrick Bateman's sadistic murders. I also chose to cut out ones that were more specifically political as opposed to financial in motivation; the best example I can think of is All The President's Men. The Watergate incident could technically be considered a white collar crime, but the goal was Nixon retaining his political power and not primarily financial profit. And as a final note, I left documentaries out. The point here was for fictional narratives only.
Just Missing The Cut
• Owning Mahowny (2003)
• Michael Clayton (2007)
• Rogue Trader (1999)
• Catch Me If You Can (2002)
• The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
#8: Boiler Room (2000)
There are people who accuse Boiler Room of just being a cheap rip-off of greater films, and there is an argument that can be made for that. But it is also a hell of a good film in its own right. Writer/director Ben Younger based his story off of the Stratton Oakmont firm, co-founded by the same Jordan Belfort who is the subject of Scorsese's new film. Younger centers his film on Giovanni Ribisi' Seth Davis, a young man who is running an unlicensed casino out of his apartment before deciding to go legit to please his federal judge father. "Going legit" puts him in brokerage firm J.T. Marlin, which he soon finds (after getting a taste of the high life) is running some highly fraudulent practices in order to get rich. The film is certainly not the most original of stories but the script is smart and Younger paces the movie well. He also has great performances from his underrated cast including Ribisi, Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, Nicky Katt, Jamie Kennedy, Rifkin and Nia Long and more. The ending falls apart a bit but until that point this is an impressive little potboiler that pays homage to the greats (quite literally in one case) and yet is just original enough to stand on its own.
#7: Trading Places (1983)
Eddie Murphy was just building his star in 1983 when he took on this fantastic white collar comedy. Trading Places is a film which proves that there is a place for humor in stories about white collar crime. While ostensibly the film is more about the Prince & the Pauper-like switcheroo between Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine and Aykroyd's Louis Winthorpe III, even that qualifies as white collar crime in the weirdest sort of way, as the Duke brothers completely destroy Louis' life for no other reason than their little wager. But of course it isn't the only financially-motivated crime being committed, as the two protagonists discover that the Dukes are attempting to violate SEC laws in order to corner the market on orange juice. This is one of the films in which we get to side with the heroes because they're taking down old, corrupt men in high-rise towers and positions of power...and man, is it a fun takedown to watch. No small part of that is due to the performances of Murphy, Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis as a prostitute that makes Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman look cold-hearted by comparison and Denholm Elliot (better known as Marcus from the Indiana Jones films) as the butler Coleman. The film is consistently funny, capped off by a hilarious climax on the floor of the stock exchange. This film not only helped build Murphy's career (and that of Curtis' as well) ever higher, it also stands as a great example of how playing Robin Hood against Wall Street crooks can make for great humor.
#6: Margin Call (2011)
Technically, I don't believe that anyone within Margin Call actually violates the law. But at the very least one could hope that the SEC would do some serious investigations here. Of course, we know that there wouldn't be many considering the results of the financial crises that resulted from the real events that inspired this fictionalized account, but I have to believe there is the spirit of serious criminal offenses in what the executives at this investment firm do. J.C. Chandor wrote and directed this fantastically tense film, which doesn't resort to needless action clichés or life-and-death stakes to build the emotional turmoil presented in the film. Instead he lets the enormity of what is happening speak for itself through the various characters in the film, all of whom are played with perfect pitch. Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci are all spectacular in portraying their roles as real people and not one-note heroes or villains. No one in this film is an out-and-out monster, and just about everyone comes off as sympathetic at some point. And that adds a lot of dramatic weight to the film, which is already buoyed by Chandor's razor-sharp dialogue. It is a film which does not have quite the recognition it deserves; it certainly needs a wider audience and is the best film made about the 2007 to 2008 financial crisis.
#5: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
In all the above films, the crimes done are strictly of the stock market "no dirty hands" variety. In Glengarry Glen Ross, the crime being done is much more hands-on. The criminals are viewed in a much more sympathetic light here however, as they are merely desperate real estate salesmen trying to respond to the fact that they are about to be fired if they can't become one of the top two salesmen for the month. David Mamet's adaptation of his own stage play is memorable not only for its widespread and fairly constant use of profanity, but for an electric scene that is easily the best of Alec Baldwin's career. I have never been a big fan of Baldwin as a person, but his delivery of the infamous "coffee is for closers" speech is a highlight of white collar crime films. Meanwhile you have Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin delivering standout work as the salesmen in question, and Kevin Spacey showing why he makes one of the best go-to guy for villains in dramatic work. While the film was not a box office hit it has become one of the more revered films in its niche, expertly portraying how desperate people can be when their backs are up against the wall.
#4: The Insider (1999)
The Insider is one of the supreme films about whistleblowers. Michael Mann's drama about Jeffrey Wigand, the man who turned the world's attention to the many crimes of Big Tobacco, is a fantastic tale about corporate greed. In this case the white collar crime is perjury, which may not seem like a crime on the level of embezzlement, Ponzi schemes or the like. Still, it could conceivably be argued that the lies put forth by tobacco executives were more damaging than any other corporate crime. (I'm neither making the argument for or against, for the record.) And Mann's script, co-written with Eric Roth based on the Marie Brenner's Vanity Fair article "The Man Who Knew Too Much," uses that background to tell an absorbing and surprisingly intense film about what could be considered a rather non-dramatic topic. Russell Crowe's performance is brilliant and perhaps the best of his career, while Al Pacino delivers in a way that he hasn't done since. This is perhaps Mann's best film...high praise, considering he is the man behind Heat, Ali and Collateral. In recent years this one seems to have faded a bit in some peoples' estimations but I still consider it a top-notch drama and a great corporate crime tale.
#3: Office Space (1999)
Ahh, Office Space. Really, who doesn't love this little bit of cinematic wish-fulfillment? Many of us have had the (dis)pleasure of working in a cubicle-laden office environment and we all know someone who is like someone from this film. Whether it is an uncaring and two-faced boss like Gary Cole's sublimely funny Bill Lumbergh, a quiet (and scary) type like Stephen Root's Milton or even someone who just hates his company like Ron Livingston's protagonist Peter Gibbons, we've all known them. Some of us have probably been them. And so it's easy to cheer for the office workers when they just decide to wreak havoc and get what they believe they have coming to them. Mike Judge's workplace comedy is deeply, deeply funny and features so many gags and quotable moments. Of course, the white collar crime comes in when Peter, Samir and Michael decide to steal money via a computer virus but much of the rest of the film--specifically, Initech's attitude toward their employees--fit the profile of the white collar crime film as well. This is one of those films were we want the criminals to get away with their crimes, because frankly we wish we could do the same.
#2: Chinatown (1974)
This one is perhaps a bit of a curveball, but the fact remains that at its core Chinatown is a film about white collar crime. Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece is neo-noir at its best, a genre I have an enormous amount of love for, and much of the film focuses on Jake Gittes' looking into other circumstances. But everything is linked to real estate and development schemes by the rather twisted Noah Cross, played with a wonderful air by the great John Huston. Many films have tried to base a series of mysterious crimes and conspiracies around real estate, but they often come up short because...well, because to be frank real estate is just not that thrilling. But Polanski, working off Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay, makes it all work. This is the controversial director's best film without question and a true highlight of films that show the level of sickening depths to which white collar crime can truly sink.
#1: Wall Street (1989)
"Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." And thus Gordon Gekko launched himself into the ranks of cinematic iconography. Oliver Stone's Wall Street is without question in my mind the greatest film about white collar crime. Charlie Sheen is ostensibly the film's focus in the role of Bud Fox, but Michael Douglas is the real star as he created one of the great villainous characters of the 1980s. Stone created a film that became the symbol of the excesses and obsession with personal desire over morality that has defined the decade ever since. Ironically, the character of Gordon Gekko became an inspiration to the people that Stone sought to warn off; look at the scene in the aforementioned Boiler Room where the brokers gather to watch Wall Street. Still you cannot blame the film itself, which is expertly crafted by Stone and his crew. Everyone remembers Douglas' portrayal of course, but Sheen did quite well himself and Martin Sheen does a fine job as Bud's father. Everyone in this film brings their A game and even the perception of Wall Street: Money Never Sleep's relative failure doesn't take the slightest bit of sheen off the golden glow of this tale of corporate-level crime.
Disguise of the Episode
Current Series/Season:Season One (2001 - 2002) Episodes Watched: 11 Last Serial Completed:The Confession - Sydney is grateful and proud of her father after he saves her life while on a case in Havana. But her admiration is short lived when Vaughn discovers further evidence that Jack may have been responsible for the deaths of over a dozen CIA officers many years earlier. Episodes Remaining: 94
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.