NEW YORK — 'OTHER People's Money" arrives on the scene a little late. A few years ago, when Oliver Stone's admirable "Wall Street" came out, the money-boom of the 1980s was still in high gear. But by this time - with events like the S & L disaster, the BCCI scandal, and criminal convictions of various financial hotshots fresh in memory - a movie pointing out the excesses of high finance seems almost old-fashioned, like a film protesting a war that's already over.Then again, it's good to find Hollywood taking an interest in things that really matter, even if the satire of "Other People's Money" might have done more good during the '80s. The greedy and self-serving sides of the business world have not passed into oblivion, and this amusing movie does a good job of spotlighting them until its weak-kneed finale, which undercuts much of what the film has tried to accomplish. The story centers on two capitalists. The older one, aptly played by Gregory Peck, is a courtly gentleman whose venerable family business prides itself on serving the community, the economy, and the American way of life. The younger one, aptly played by Danny DeVito, is a scheming wheeler-dealer whose decisions are dictated not by conscience but by the charts on an ever-present computer screen. Since that old family business isn't making a profit at this particular moment, the corporate raider springs into action, conniving to take it over and shut it down - regardless of how much hardship this causes. But his machinations are opposed by a high-powered lawyer, played by Penelope Ann Miller, who's called in to protect the vulnerable company. Her duel with the raider is one focus of the movie. Another is the unlikely romance that just might emerge from their all-too-adversarial relationship. The very unlikelihood of that romance is a primary source of the film's humor, of course. This is partly because Mr. DeVito and Ms. Miller aren't exactly a conventional Hollywood couple, and partly because their characters both have plenty of failings. He's a male chauvinist and confirmed sexual harasser, while she's not above using her feminine charms to cajole a male opponent. It's to the credit of "Other People's Money" that shortcomings are doled out to characters on both sides of the story, not piled entirely onto a few unfortunate bad guys. This prepares us for the thought-provoking climax, when a stirring defense of traditional business is followed by a speech about the necessity of hard new methods in a hard new world. Both cases are made with conviction, and the one that wins the day isn't the friendliest of the two. The movie was directed by Norman Jewison, whose long history of socially concerned filmmaking stretches from the racially sensitive overtones of "In the Heat of the Night" and "A Soldier's Story" to the labor-union drama of "F.I.S.T." and the lawyerly lampooning of "...And Justice for All," among other examples. He clearly cares about the serious subtext of "Other People's Money," so it's too bad he finishes the story with a jokey scene in which the comic uproar starts over and the romance emerges as the primary angle. This finale was reportedly imposed on the film after unsuccessful previews, so Mr. Jewison shouldn't bear all the blame for it. Still, it's a wimpy conclusion to an otherwise tough-minded comedy. In other areas, Jewison has guided DeVito to another of his first-rate comic performances, and coaxed skillful work from Miller, whose movie-star future is starting to look very bright. And it's always a pleasure to see Mr. Peck, even when his role offers few opportunities for high-key acting. Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplay, based on Jerry Sterner's stage play, and Haskell Wexler - a filmmaking veteran with an interest in social criticism - did the cinematography. Their work pays higher dividends tha n most recent Hollywood fare.
Rated * for language and sex-related dialogue.