Stephen Arnell

Money money money: 10 movies about the markets

Money money money:  10 movies about the markets
Image: Shutterstock
Text settings

The furore in the US over the rocketing shares of previously written off companies such as GameStop, Blackberry, AMC Entertainment and Macy’s (the ‘Reddit Revolt’) has introduced stock market trading terms to the general public, with some folks newly opining (with a patina of assumed knowledge) about ‘hedge funds’, ‘penny shares’, ‘junk bonds’ ‘short-selling’ and ‘pump and dump’.

But this is hardly the first-time similar events have occurred. Way back in 1720 the ‘South Sea Bubble’ saw investors suckered when the South Sea Company collapsed as any hopes of generating income from its monopoly on selling slaves to South America (mostly controlled by Spain and Portugal) had come to nought, despite the enterprise continuing to take on considerable amounts of British government debt.

The only steadfast rule appears to be that the gulls who come late to the party when acquiring shares in meta-sizing companies are left holding the bag as other investors pull out.

Financial scams and schemes have been a recurring theme for movie makers.  This chronological countdown avoids a few of the best-known titles, in an effort to bring to light other pictures worthy of checking out.  So, my apologies in advance for the absence of the likes of Trading Places (1983) and Wall Street (1987).

Other movies such as Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and 99 Homes (2014) have dealt with property scams; Casino Jack (2010) and American Hustle (2013) with political/finance corruption, whilst Barbarians at the Gate (1993) and the comedy Duplicity (2009) concerned the effect on share prices of new ‘wonder’ products.

And let’s not forget money laundering, naturally enough the subject of Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat (2019) and the same year’s Crypto, whilst 2013’s Runner Runner took actual online gambling stings as the premise.

But for the purpose of this Top Ten, we will concentrate on movies about the financial markets themselves:

Wizard of Lies (2017) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

HBO’s Wizard of Lies sees Robert De Niro reunite with his The Family (2013) co-star Michelle Pfeiffer to play notorious Ponzi scheme scammer Bernie Madoff and his wife Ruth respectively.

In 2009, after bilking billions from investors, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, with a release date of 2139 - which includes a reduction for good behaviour. You’d get less for murder, as the old saw goes.

Barry Levinson’s picture was a critical and ratings success, with strong performances from the leads and supporting cast members including Alessandro Nivola and Hank Azaria.

Money Monster (2016) – Amazon Rent/Buy

Despite the presence of George Clooney and Julia Roberts in the cast, Jodie Foster’s earnest hostage drama is unfortunately more of a Mad City (1997, John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman) than a Dog Day Afternoon (1974, Al Pacino).

TV financial expert Lee Gates (Clooney) is held hostage live on air when IBIS Clear Capital, a company he recommended tanks, prompting disgruntled investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) to take matters into his own hands in a quest for answers.

Wheels within wheels, as we discover that something more than a simple trading algorithm glitch was responsible for the collapse.

Despite the mixed reviews, Money Monster was a money-maker, taking $93.3m in worldwide box office receipts against a $27.4m budget. A nice little earner, as Arthur Daley (George Cole) would say.

The Big Short (2015) – BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

The US 2007-08 financial meltdown caused by subprime mortgages is the subject of Adam McKay’s polemical comedy-drama.

The movie explains the origins of the crisis – and how some profited from the bubble by anticipating the collapse. It's a cerebral watch but the pill is sugared by a starry cast, including Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Rafe Spall and Succession’s Jeremy Strong.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – Netflix, Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

To my mind the most successful collaboration to date between Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street could be the work of a director half Scorsese's age.

The energy rarely lets up, and although some may judge it overlong, and a tad too reliant on Goodfellas-style narration, Wolf is a great picture – although one (from the opening scenes onward) that you couldn’t call family viewing.

DiCaprio has never been better as the oddly likeable (to some) fraudster Jordan Belfort, with cracking support from Margot Robbie as second wife Naomi Lapaglia and Jonah Hill as unhinged sidekick Donnie Azoff.

Kyle Chandler (who incidentally looks a lot like DiCaprio’s character in the picture) is great as Belfort’s FBI nemesis Patrick Denham.  Joanna Lumley is also good value as Robbie’s Aunt Emma, reminding us that she’s capable of a lot more than those vacuous travelogues for ITV.

Cosmopolis (2012) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

David Cronenberg’s claustrophobic take on Don DeLillo’s novel of the same name details the disintegration of billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) ensconced in his limo/office as it crawls through the Manhattan traffic to an appointment with his barber.

As ‘taking a haircut’ is oft-used financial jargon I guess that’s a not-so-subtle reference to Packer’s extremely sudden reversal of fortune as currency speculation ruins him.

Set during the Occupy Wall Street days of Autumn 2011, Cosmopolis likely seeks to provide some kind of meditation on capitalism, human nature, and existence, but tends to be a bit heavy-handed.

Too Big to Fail (2011) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

Another HBO movie, Director Curtis (LA Confidential) Hanson looks at the 2008 disaster through the eyes of then U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (William Hurt).

The movie ends on a sobering note, as the banks are propped up by huge injections of government money via Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) – and get to decide how they use the billions given to them.

Once again, these sorts of dialogue-heavy movies tend to attract decent casts, TBTF being no exception, with Hurt joined by Ed Asner, James Woods, Billy Crudup, Cynthia Nixon, Topher Grace, Paul Giametti, Kathy Baker, Tony Shalhoub, Bill Pullman, and others.

Margin Call (2011) - Amazon Prime, also Rent/Buy

J. C. Chandor’s (All Is Lost/A Most Violent Year) directorial debut has many admirers.

An unbelievable cast (including Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany Demi Moore, Kevin Spacey and Zachary Quinto) and committed performances from all make this story of an unnamed bank selling off toxic assets in a fire sale during the beginning of the 2007/08 crisis a compelling watch.

The bank’s actions drew comparisons to that of Goldman Sachs, who also saw which way the financial winds were blowing and moved to reduce its position in mortgage-backed securities before the excrement hit the proverbial fan. My only problem is that it appears to end prematurely, with the final reel seemingly missing. Intentional? I'll let you be the judge of that.

Boiler Room (2000) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

In what could be seen as a pimply take on Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Boiler Room explores the world of New York State off ramp ‘chop shop’ brokerage firms that also featured in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Scams lead to the inevitable appearance of the FBI and reckonings of various kinds for the young brokers (including Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Affleck and Nia Long).

Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko serves as a role model for some of the JT Marlin employees, who are purportedly fond of quoting the character’s dialogue from the picture.  Since the plot follows the same basic arc as Wall Street, this is about as self-referential as you can get.

Rogue Trader (1999)

Ewan McGregor tries one of his first doomed attempts at a London accent (see also Cassandra’s Dream and The Ghost) in this depiction of the rise and fall of Barings’ SIMEX General Manager Nick Leeson, who lost the bank a whopping £800 million. The antics of the scamp didn’t parlay into a hit movie, as the picture made less than a million pounds on a $12.8m budget.

Given Rogue Trader’s relatively high production costs (for a UK production), it's surprising that the picture seems to have no more visual finesse than your average budget TV series.  The movie was directed by James Dearden, who wrote the screenplay for Fatal Attraction (1987).

Other People’s Money (1991) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

A lighter note for this final choice, Norman Jewison’s (In the Heat of the Night, Rollerball) adaptation of the popular stage play by Jerry Sterner resembles Wall Street-lite, with Danny DeVito playing corporate raider ‘Larry the Liquidator’ Garfield, echoing his old chum (and former roommate) Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko.

The movie is an affable enough time-passer, but the decision to change the play’s final act and insert a tacked on happy ending does it no favours. A late career role for Hollywood Legend Gregory Peck as Andrew 'Jorgy' Jorgenson, whose excitingly named New England Wire & Cable Company is DeVito’s latest target.