August 28, 2002

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Banking on it?
The Roxie's Aussie econ thriller is good greed pulp.

By Dennis Harvey

YES, IT'S indeed the economy, stupid, though very seldom at the movies. In reel-world (as it is in real-world) politics, international incident-scale paranoia and thrills hinge on melodramatic bogeymen: the religious fanatics, aged or nuevo Nazis, isolated grudge-keepers, and sheer Dennis Hopper-grade crazies. Never mind that such animals, when they really do exist, are usually the at-least-indirect product of first-world governmental and corporate profiteering on arms, resources, and cheap labor delivered to and from the great unwashed. The shredded-paper trail tracing such deals is too boring, too obscure for pop media treatment. If that weren't so, wouldn't Noam Chomsky be as huge as John Grisham?

Films almost never meaningfully center on what boardroom shuffleboarding can do. When they enter the corporate world at all, it's usually just personal, not global, or even national, in scrutiny. There have been portraits of soul-selling ruthlessness (In the Company of Men, The Business of Strangers), yuppie exec meltdowns (American Psycho, the entire James Spader oeuvre), congratulatory "feminist" portraits – why always comic? – of women learning to dirty-trick just like the boys (Working Girl, Nine to Five), and sexy go-go morality tales (Wall Street, The Devil's Advocate). But none of these are really political, in the sense that they play as isolated, fictional cases of corruption and perversity. When movies actually go exposé-ing, it's invariably in terms of the little David (e.g., Erin Brockovich) who goes up against an evil Goliath we're assured isn't representative of the general giant population.

Probably the last major motion picture that tried to make economics exciting was the busted 1981 Xmas release Rollover, in which, somehow, the torrid romance between petrochemical heiress Jane Fonda and banking troubleshooter Kris Kristofferson (!) resulted in a worldwide market crash. Bummer! Well, at least they still had each other, even if millions starved. Within a couple years, Fonda had disappeared into fitness videos, Kristofferson was appearing on TV in Joan Rivers and Friends Salute Heidi Abromowitz, and Oscar-winning director Alan J. Pakula was making a Kristy McNichol movie. Coincidence? Well, yeah, probably, though you can never underestimate the Pentagon's influence in these things.

A much more successful if also somewhat implausible stab at making money menacing is the new Australian thriller The Bank, writer-director Robert Connolly's second feature. After a brief '70s prologue suggesting the nerd at the back of the grade school class is an incipient mathematical genius, we're introduced to grown-up Jim Doyle (David Wenham, who gets serious face time as Faramir in the next two Lord of the Rings installments), a duly rumpled, thinky cutie fresh outta grad school who's already "on the verge of discovering the Holy Grail of economic theory." This attracts attention from Simon O'Reilly, sharklike CEO of the enormous CentraBank corporation. He's the kind of man whose idea of cocktail banter is to squeeze a new recruit's shoulder and confide, "You're gonna work so much better with my foot at the back of your neck."

So the unproved Jim is promptly granted staff, a top-security lair, and all the computing gizmos a near bottomless budget can buy in order to develop a system that could actually anticipate market crashes before they occur. He wants to alleviate so much human suffering; Simon, of course, smells less altruistic opportunities. Things fall into place a little too easily, both at work and elsewhere – Jim scarcely has time for a private wank before a real live girlfriend (Sibylla Budd) drops from the sky, rendering such solo activity unnecessary. She's suspiciously interested in his "secret" job, however. Meanwhile a working-class couple (Steve Rodgers and Mandy McElhinney) who lost their business and son to the bank's hard-nosed foreclosure tactics aim for revenge, by means legal or otherwise.

It's a little pat to have the only American in the cast (Anthony La Paglia, on glowering autopilot after his much better turn in Lantana) be the biggest wolf among so many Aussie cubs and sheep. Other story aspects are familiar if well used, and in visual terms Connolly's direction is only competent. Still, The Bank is progressive pulp – a movie that entertainingly worries just how perilously everyone's financial world, from Djakarta to Detroit, balances on the greed and whim of institutions we have almost no influence on. The conclusion may owe something to the conceit of the 1990s' greatest lost TV show, Fox's Twin Peaks-in-a-skyscraper serial Profit, but it's a very satisfying stick-it-to-the-man fantasy nonetheless.

'The Bank' opens Wed/28, Roxie Cinema, S.F., and Rafael Film Center, San Rafael. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.