Paul L. Caron

Monday, March 9, 2009

Tax Movies

From Robert G. Nassau (Syracuse):

Stranger Than Fiction The Syracuse University College of Law Tax Society, the Law School’s #1 student organization dedicated to all things tax, has been holding Movie Nights this year, at which it screens tax-related movies. So far it has shown Stranger Than Fiction (2006), in which a charming-though-confused Will Ferrell plays an IRS agent auditing (then loving) small bakery owner Maggie Gyllenhaal; A Taxing Woman (a/k/a Marusa no Onna; 1987), written and directed by esteemed Japanese auteur Juzo Itami, in which a female revenue agent relentlessly audits a gangster businessman; and, most recently, Harry’s War (1981), a monstrously bad movie that glorifies the tax protestor movement, and which was written and directed by Keith Merrill, who somehow won the 1974 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for “The Great American Cowboy.”

Reeling, pun intended, from the experience of Harry’s War, and knowing only two other potential tax-related movies (The Firm (1993) and A Taxing Woman’s Return (1988), the Tax Society’s Board of Directors commissioned me to solicit recommendations from the finest available resource known to tax-related movie lovers: the TaxProf ListServ. The following are the suggestions that were received.

Tax Me If You CanMike McIntyre (Wayne State) first noted “I also like A Taxing Woman’s Return. It is a sequel that works. The Taxing Woman duo never made it to DVD as far as I know. [Ed. Note: they’re not on Netflix; we got A Taxing Woman on VHS at the local library.] The second one was controversial in Japan, and the rumor mill claims that the director, Juzo Itami, was murdered as a result of making the film.” Prof. McIntyre (and Roberta Mann) endorse Tax Me if You Can (2004), a PBS Frontline expose of the tax-shelter industry. Prof. McIntyre played a part in this project, which is perhaps the only film ever to give a “Special Thanks” to Tax Notes. Prof. Mann reports that she “screened it at the law school last month, to quite good reviews. I've also regularly used it in Business Tax and Tax Policy classes.” Finally, Prof. McIntyre likes Adam’s Rib (1949), which “has some tax and is a fun old timer with Hepburn and Tracy.”

Say AnythingBryan Camp (Texas Tech) had three recommendations: You Can't Take it With You (1938), “where the family patriarch is a goofy old guy who brags he has never paid his income tax and then, in the final act, the IRS man shows up”; The Producers (1968 and 2005): “the 1968s version with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel being much better than the 2005 version with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, although Will Ferrell does a great job in the latter version as the nutty neo-nazi playwright; this was not directly tax but it was a scheme to bilk investors and so you could link it to the tax problems faced by the Madoff investors”; and Say Anything (1989), “a terrific movie with a young Jon Cusack and a middle-aged John Mahoney, who plays the father of the girl Cusack is courting; Mahoney's character has a house full of stuff that he bought for just under $10,000 representing disposition of unreported income; he eventually gets caught for tax evasion and lands in jail; the movie is excellent on many levels, including having somewhat complex characters who are neither all good nor all bad.”

Slap Shot Michael Knoll (Pennsylvania) suggested Slap Shot (1977) with Paul Newman. “The tax angle is that the owner holds the team as a tax shelter. The tax shelter story line has a nice teaching point since the owner claims she would be better off folding the team and taking a loss rather than selling it at a profit. An added bonus for your group is that the movie has several connections to upstate New York.”

Jeffrey Sherman (Chicago-Kent) is another Slap Shot fan, but cautions: “I second Michael's recommendation. I remember vividly the scene he describes, and it's a fine one. But I'd urge you to screen it for yourself before recommending it to the group. The movie is filled with extremely offensive language: not just the usual 4-letter suspects but also extremely misogynistic and homophobic remarks. The offensive language is not gratuitous; it's completely in character. But still. . . . Also, there's a great deal of brutality and violence in the movie: violence which is portrayed as admirable ‘jolly good fun.’ Again, it fits the movie perfectly, but you may want to warn students about what to expect.” Prof. Sherman also suggests The Young Philadelphians (1959), in which Paul Newman, again, “playing a young lawyer, gives some tax advice (correct advice, as I recall) to Billie Burke.”

Allan Samansky (Ohio State) also gives two thumbs up to The Young Philadelphians, noting: “an oldie but goodie -- The Young Philadelphians with a quite young Paul Newman as a tax lawyer who changes specialties to represent a friend accused of murder (as I recall).”

National Treasure Mark Cochran (St. Mary's) mentioned National Treasure (2004), “the climactic scene of which takes place underneath Trinity Church, which was the employer of the taxpayer in Stanton (companion case to Duberstein).”

Dorothy Brown (Emory) noted that in the sequel to National Treasure, National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), one of the character’s Ferrari, which he purchased with his share of the booty from the original National Treasure, is seized to pay back taxes. “Line from the movie: Something to the effect of ‘How much taxes are owed on $5 million? Answer: $6 million.’” Prof. Brown also remembered The Day After Tomorrow (2004), which is “a climate-change movie with a library scene where they have to burn books to keep warm, and they grab either the IRS Code or tax books.” [Ed. Note: My son loves that scene.]

Joel Newman (Wake Forest) spotted another movie/actual-tax-law link in Chinatown (1974), “a truly excellent movie, which is all about the land that was the subject of the Inaja Land case.”

LA Law Eric Lustig (New England) went beyond film to television, observing: “What about TV Series night. You could go back to the Honeymooners (there is a tax episode that a colleague of mine raves about). You could go back to LA Law. And there is a great Seinfeld Episode.”

In addition to these TaxProf recommendations, a Tax Society member uncovered The Taxman Cometh: Some Films about Tax Law and Its Effects, compiled by Christine Corcos (LSU).  Prof. Corcos lists many of the movies described above, but also a handful of others, including all of the Robin Hood films.

What a Way to Go Then there is the Internet Movie Database, which, with a little patience or a research assistant, neither of which I have, one can uncover such (potential) gems as What a Way To Go (1964), which IMDB describes as follows: “This black comedy opens with Louisa Foster donating a multimillion dollar check to the IRS. The tax department thinks she's crazy and sends her to a psychiatrist. She then discusses her four marriages, in which all of her husbands became incredibly rich and died prematurely because of their drive to be rich.”

Finally, Matthew Schnall provided the opening words from the most successful of all the movies on this list: "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo. While the Congress of the Republic endlessly debates this alarming chain of events, the Supreme Chancellor has secretly dispatched two Jedi Knights, the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy, to settle the conflict . . .." If you don’t know which movie that’s from, I’m not going to tell you.

Star Wars

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I lecture on technical tax matters to CPA’s for the AICPA and CPE, Inc. and I usually ask for recommendation on tax films from the participants since we are poorly represented in popular media. I’d like to add to your list of tax films.

I have a list of my top five tax films on my website (I haven’t yet been able to come up with ten films that deal with income tax or accounting as a primary or secondary story line that I can recommend) and they include some of the items on your blog but I also have The Mating Game with Tony Randal and Debbie Reynolds in which Tony Randal plays an IRS agent sent to audit Debbie Reynold's family after a neighbor turns them in for never filing a tax return. I also, in my discussions with my groups, have had my attention drawn to a 2001 Oscar winning short film The Accountant. Fortunately, the seminar attendee who brought the film to my attention worked in a firm that purchased a quantity of the DVD for gifts to be given to their clients so he gave me a copy. I don’t know where it can be purchased or viewed. Excerpts are available on YouTube.

Finally, A Taxing Woman can be purchased on DVD from for 17.99.

Posted by: Dennis Riley | Mar 11, 2009 1:24:57 PM

Grumpy Old Men -- Jack Lemmon's character is hounded by Buck Henry's IRS agent, until Walter Matthau wreaks havoc on repo day.

The Blues Brothers -- Jake and Elwood put the band back together to raise the $5000 necessary to pay the Cook County property tax on the orphanage in which they were raised.

Posted by: Brian | Mar 11, 2009 11:55:12 AM

The Firm - Tom Cruise is a tax lawyer and if you listen closely you'll catch a reference to the 704(b) regulations !

Posted by: LoBo | Mar 11, 2009 11:15:12 AM

I'm quite surprised that nobody has mentioned Charade, in which Cary Grant plays an agent of the US Treasury. Makes the job look pretty glamorous!

Posted by: Meredith | Mar 11, 2009 7:31:00 AM

Let's not forget the Untouchables, a great movie all by itself, but Capone goes away for income tax evasion!

Posted by: Brian | Mar 11, 2009 6:42:04 AM

Happy Gilmore. He takes up pro golf to make enough money to save his grandma's home from the IRS.

Posted by: Jesse | Mar 11, 2009 4:57:54 AM

Hellooo...? What about The Untouchables?!

Posted by: ch | Mar 10, 2009 7:24:20 PM

In The Shawshank Redemption, main character Andy Dufresne is a banker who uses his tax knowledge to his advantage while in jail. Great movie.

Posted by: MTB | Mar 10, 2009 5:34:39 PM

The Untouchables...Capone is taken down for tax evasion

Posted by: Dave | Mar 10, 2009 4:53:02 PM

How about The Shawshank Redemption, in which the protagonist's knowledge of income tax gets him special treatment from a guard, and eventually earns him the role of the warden's accountant and bookkeeper, which, of course, in the end enabled him to "retire" to that wonderful beach in Mexico.

Posted by: Pat Dilley | Mar 10, 2009 4:50:29 PM

Also, there is a line in Armageddon about Bruce Willis' crew not having to pay taxes ever in exchange for going into space to blow up the asteroid.

Posted by: Aakash | Mar 10, 2009 4:08:27 PM

The Untouchables - Capone (DeNiro) ultimately successfully prosecuted on tax evasion charges.

Posted by: jj | Mar 10, 2009 4:01:19 PM

what about the untouchables? going after capone on tax evasion.

Posted by: Aakash | Mar 10, 2009 3:57:02 PM

My estate planning professor always recommended Body Heat, with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Undoubtably the most exciting part revolves around the rule against perpetuities.

Posted by: TaxGeek | Mar 10, 2009 12:06:02 PM

I saw "You Can't Take It With You" on Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago. It is one of Frank Capra's (who is best known for "It's a Wonderful Life" -- also with a tax reference) least-known films. It was interesting to see Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore working together under a much different storyline. In "Wonderful Life," Stewart is struggling and Barrymore is wealthy, whereas in "Take it With You," their financial positions are reversed.

Posted by: Kelly Anders | Mar 9, 2009 12:52:19 PM

Don't forget about 7 Pounds. Will Smith is an IRS auditor/tax collector.

Posted by: Travis | Mar 9, 2009 11:18:08 AM

Steve Martin stars as a nerdy tax attorney (pardon the redundancy) in "Bringing Down the House," alongside Queen Latifah. It's pretty bad.

Posted by: andy | Mar 9, 2009 10:09:50 AM