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Greed is good and funny in DeVito's hands

LOS ANGELES In the old Frank Capra movies, Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper would stand up and make a passionate speech in defense of old-fashioned American values, and everybody would cheer and the movie would be over.

In "Other People's Money" (opening Friday in Chicago), Gregory Peck stands up and makes a passionate speech in defense of old-fashioned American values, and everybody cheers, and Peck sits down and Danny DeVito stands up. And he makes a speech in defense of greed and pragmatism, and when he sits down, everybody cheers some more. After all, these are the 1990s.

Who is right? I asked DeVito. Is it Peck, who defends the staunch old New England manufacturing firm that his father founded? Or is it DeVito's character, named Larry the Liquidator, who wants to raid the stock and strip-mine the company for its assets?

"This is a good question," DeVito said. "See, I personally feel, from my point of view, as Larry the Liquidator, that I was right. I'll tell ya though, when Gregory Peck, who represents a substantial, honorable, righteous, wholesome America, gives his speech to the shareholders - if I didn't have to get up and slice him off at the knees, I would have voted for him. It's a heck of a thing, because we should be nurturing the things that we've dedicated our lives to. Unfortunately in the case that we're talking about, it would be silly for people who've invested their money into a company to leave it there just out of goodwill.

"I felt like what I was saying was the right thing, the proper thing. So what I tried to do was let the words sink in to the audience. So I tell them: `You want to make money, that's why you invested your money in the first place. You don't care if they manufacture cable wire, fried chicken, or grow tangerines. It's a simple matter of, this factory's not making the money.' "

The scene where Peck and DeVito have their debate comes near the end of "Other People's Money," and it's one of those acting duets where both actors hit every note. First Peck appeals to your heart, and then DeVito appeals to your bank account. It's like Pavarotti and Domingo standing center stage and belting arias at each other. And the strange thing is, you agree with both of them.

DeVito's performance in the movie is what makes that possible. The director, Norman Jewison, has accepted the challenge of making his central character into a louse, and still expecting us to like him. Maybe only DeVito could have pulled this off. And maybe it helps that the whole time he's acting like a bloodsucking money-grubber, he's also hopelessly in love with Peck's daughter, who is the lawyer trying to stop his takeover plans.

She's played by Penelope Ann Miller, who we might as well call the Actress with 100 Faces, since she looks different in every movie. Can you place her as Marlon Brando's daughter in "The Freshman," and Arnold Schwarzenegger's girlfriend in "Kindergarten Cop," and the young woman who dances with Robert De Niro in "Awakenings"? No? Neither could DeVito.

This time she's a chic, slick, bright, brainy Wall Street lawyer who wants to destroy Larry the Liquidator, except for one thing. She falls for him. They like each other at first sight, but she instantly realizes that the only way to handle this self-important, greedy little takeover artist is to treat him with arrogance and disdain. Which she does, in scenes of exquisite comic timing in which an insult can sometimes be contained even in a moment of silence. `Sympathy for Larry' "I have a lot of sympathy for Larry," DeVito said, the day after the movie had its Hollywood press screening. "The cards fall a certain way in your life, and you react accordingly. He happens to be a moneymaking machine.

He has a talent for finding that nugget, and polishing it up, and figuring out how to rip it out of the muck and mire, and turn it over. But he's a good person, and he has redeeming qualities. For instance, his love of art and music, his love of the opposite sex. He could have treated women like a commodity, something to further his wealth, and I don't think he did. He treated his business that way. He could shave this off, sell that land off, reap the benefits, but I think when it came to human elements, he gave them the worth that they deserved. He wasn't trying to transform them into some other gain."

In the film, based on the Jerry Sterner play that had a long run at the Royal George Theater in Chicago, he pursues Penelope Ann Miller with every ounce of energy that he has left over from trying to destroy her in the proxy fight. And in one of the movie's priceless moments of romantic comedy, he serenades her over the telephone, with his violin. The scene was shot in real time - DeVito playing while Miller listened - and the way they both play it is magical.

"He's never going to become Isaac Stern, we know that," DeVito said, "even though I really tried to learn that piece."

That was really you playing, right? "Yeah. The crew had to suffer through many takes. I've played violin in other things. In `Goin' South,' that was the first time I played violin, and then I did it on `Taxi' with Andy Kaufman, God rest his soul. A few weeks after it was on the air, there was an article in a supermarket paper, and it said Danny DeVito was a dedicated violinist all his life. He studied the violin, and he gave up the career of a virtuoso violinist to become a television actor, a TV star! So my wife and I cut it out, and put it on the bulletin board in the kitchen. I was hysterical! Three or four days later, my mother calls, I swear to God, she says, `Hey, Danny, I didn't know you wanted to play the violin!' "

He laughed. One of the pleasures of Danny DeVito's company is that you sense he is smart and aggressive, but that in his case, unlike the cases of a lot of people out here, those qualities are not linked to unhappiness and spitefulness. He is on a roll right now, after the enormous success of "The War of the Roses," a movie he directed and co-starred in, and after "Other People's Money," which could quite likely get him an Oscar nomination. Right now he is starring in "Batman Returns," and next he will direct Jack Nicholson in the title role of "Hoffa." The wall of his office is covered with headlines about Hoffa, Xeroxed from old newspapers, and a calendar marked with a countdown: Fifteen weeks until the start of shooting. When he talks about the project, he gets excited: `Hoffa' is next "I talked to Joe Roth at 20th Century-Fox, and he showed me a list of things he had on the cooker, and when he came to a David Mamet screenplay of `Hoffa,' I said, `I want to see this.' I'm a big fan of Mamet. I was always intrigued with Jimmy Hoffa, I guess we all were, even though I had a kind of one-sided view of him as a boy. I loved the screenplay so much. It was so passionate, an incredible look at a figure who did more for the men and women of the labor movement than any other man of his time.

"So I got very hot on this. I wanted to direct this, and they were all set, and then I was thinking about who was going to play the part, and I came to my friend Jack Nicholson, and he read it, and he loved it, and we were all set. But he had a commitment to do this movie called `Man Trouble,' with Bob Rafelson, and Jack is a very loyal man, and a good friend, and they had been trying to get this going for a very long time, so our movie was going to get put on hold, and then `Other People's Money' came along. So next comes `Hoffa.' "

In the meantime, DeVito is playing the Penguin in "Batman Returns." On the day before I talked with him, he had flown through the air, using one of the Penguin's helicopter-umbrellas.

"It was an amazing, exhilarating experience," he said.

Is this going to lead you to hang-gliding?

"No. I don't mind flying on a movie set, but I'm not into that daredevil stuff. I'm not a daredevil at heart."

But you were a lot of feet in the air, right? "Fifty. I'm talking about special effects, very good people, a harness, and a lot of prayers. I said to Tim Burton, the director, it's a very honorable thing that you're doing this the fifth week into the movie, and not waiting to the very end to shoot this scene, in case I get killed. It was like when you're a kid, and you've got the pillows all lined up on the credenza - don't try this at home - and you jump, and it's terrifying, and it looks like a postage stamp when you first look at it, but then you want to do it again, and again, and again. That's how I felt."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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