Cinema: A Season Of Flash And Greed

Two Christmas movies Tweak an '80s devil

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"What do you think the devil is going to look like if he's around? . . . He will be attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and . . . he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women."

-- Aaron Altman in Broadcast News

Standards and practices. It is the TV networks' courtly euphemism for their censorship departments. But it is a dafter delusion, on Broadcast Row or Wall Street or Pennsylvania Avenue or any other center of American power these days, to think that old-fashioned moral standards have much to do with today's lean, mean, rapier-clean business practices. Does a news organization, like the one in Broadcast News, employ too many talented men and women to keep its profits proud and its corporate raiders on hold? Then it will package the old reliables and promote the young presentables -- including a good-looking network reporter with nothing on his mind but making it. Does an avid stockbroker, like the one in Wall Street, want to make a quick kill? Then he will sell himself to the nearest killer -- a raider who is part Ivan Boesky, more Mephistopheles. Cut a deal with the devil, and you may become him.

White-collar guys with blood under their manicured nails, Tom Grunick (played by William Hurt in Broadcast News) and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen in Wall Street) are the ring bearers, the genetically streamlined children, of the new amorality. Bud, in his mid-20s, is learning how to wheel and wheedle; Tom, in his mid-30s, already knows how to ingratiate and conquer. Bud does it with long hours and pit-bull doggedness, Tom with his boyish, passive charisma. Both men might tell you that ideals are as passe as peace marches and that the happening disease, the one everyone wants to catch, is designer greed. So who cares that Bud is a bookie in an Armani suit and Tom is a mannequin with an earpiece? Both will go far. And both will be backpacking their films toward Oscar nominations and the top of the Christmas-party chat list.

It has been a strange year for American movies. The most popular films of 1987 have a dark hue: violent policiers (Beverly Hills Cop II, The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, Stakeout), corrosive Viet Nam memorials (Platoon and Full Metal Jacket), thrillers about sexual anxiety (Fatal Attraction). Steven Spielberg has flown to the dark side of E.T.: in Empire of the Sun a boy goes to war, and nearly goes mad. Even the comedies are cynical. The Secret of My Success got Michael J. Fox into bed with his uncle's wife to help advance his career. The Witches of Eastwick sent Satan to defeat at the caressing hands of three ravishing feminists. This week's predictable hit, Throw Momma from the Train, is a jolly farce about matricide.

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