I’ve talked about Brewster’s Millions (1985) before, but I still don’t think this movie gets enough credit for being such a brilliant comedy. The setup is simple: a penniless schlub has to spend $30 million in 30 days and have no assets to show for it at the end in order to inherit $300 million from a long-lost great-uncle. But this seemingly clear comedic setup is actually a psychologically complex look into the value of wealth. It is asking a profound question: how do you break a lifetime of bad habits?
The secret to the film’s genius lies in Brewster’s great-uncle, Rupert Horn. He wants to ensure that his wealth will live on after his death, and the only way he can do that is to force his only heir to become like himself. It’s interesting that the only connection between the two of them is money. They never meet in person, even though the way the scene is shot makes it seem like they’re having an in-depth conversation. But Brewster learns in 30 short days what it took a lifetime for Rupert to learn about the value of money.
Let’s go through the pearls of wisdom that Rupert shares with Brewster and see if we might benefit from them ourselves.
I’m Stuck with You
Rupert Horn has no children, friends, or any other living relatives who he can give his inheritance to. He wants to believe that his life hasn’t been wasted accumulating all of that money. So he’s going to make the best of a bad situation. He’s going to turn Brewster into the kind of man who can deserve wealth.
Wealth quickly gotten is also quickly lost. That’s why you don’t hear about any rich Lottery winners. Almost without fail, Lottery winners fall back into their old ways and lose all of their money within a few years of getting it. Why is that? Because of the simple fact that if you give a poor man a million dollars, he’s not a millionaire. He’s a poor man with a million dollars. He still has the same mentality as a man stuck in perpetual poverty. Nothing has changed, except that all of his inhibitions are out the window.
There’s usually a reason why one man is poor and another is wealthy, and it has little to do with superficial things like his race or upbringing. If a man truly wants to be wealthy and is willing to put forth the effort, nothing will stand in his way. But wealth is just a tool; it’s not the end goal of a wealthy person. It’s just the enabler of a man to make his ambitions real.
We’re Going to Have Some Fun
Brewster starts out like most people. He thinks it would be fun to have a lot of money, but he has no idea how to handle the responsibility that comes with it. Being forced to spend recklessly might seem like a dream come true, but it is actually a nightmare.
Rupert Horn is going to teach his great-nephew a lesson he’ll never forget. It’s so easy to lose money that it’s possible to spend $30 million in a single month and watch it just vanish into the ether of irresponsibility with absolutely nothing accumulated from it. Think about that. No assets after spending $30 million! That’s scary, and yet that seems to be the norm. Most people seem to be running a race with their money, and just barely keeping up with their monthly payments with no ability to accumulate actual assets and wealth.
A lot of money doesn’t make a man wealthy. It’s a man’s habits and outlook on life that make him wealthy. “Fake it till you make it” doesn’t mean you spend money with abandon and hope that that will fool people into believing you’re wealthy. It means to be frugal and spend money wisely until you get to the point where you have so much respect for money that your habits will allow you to keep accumulating more of it.
Sick of Spending Money
The most important lesson for Brewster to learn is to hate spending money. Rupert Horn wants to burn this thought so deeply into Brewster’s psyche that the very sight of money will make him want to throw up – not because he wants Brewster to hate money. Far from it. He wants Brewster to love and honor his money so much that he will only spend money when he completely understands why he’s doing it and what it will do for him.
It’s easy to spend money when you don’t think about it. But if you feel the pain of parting with your hard-earned cash every time you make even a small purchase at the grocery store, you will understand the deep significance of what money stands for. It’s not just a valuable and universally tradable commodity; it is you. Or, more precisely, it is your value that you are sharing with others. Money is earned by showing value to others, so all of those dollar bills in your pocket and your bank account signify how successful you are at meeting other people’s needs. They are a statement about your worth in a much higher way than a simple numerical sum. It should make a good man sick to think of ever wasting his value or selling himself short by purchasing things that fail to enrich his life.
You’re Not Allowed to Tell Anyone
The final stipulation that Rupert Horn places on Brewster is to forbid him to tell anyone why he has to spend the $30 million. He doesn’t want anyone helping Brewster to come up with clever ways to spend the money, but he also wants Brewster to learn one more valuable lesson: every man rises and falls by his own actions. No one can make someone else be successful in life. You can teach a man, encourage him, and show him the right way to live, but it’s still he who must put everything into practice. There is no such thing as borrowed virtue. Every man must prove what kind of man he is by how he acts, and he can’t rely on any group identity or communal actions to make up for his lack of personal rectitude.
There is no kindness in being merciful to people who are making terrible choices. Doing this only makes them believe that their poor choices don’t have consequences or that they are, in fact, good. Someone else will pay the price, not them. Mercy always comes with a heavy price. For the one being shown mercy, it means trading one master for another. Whoever sets the terms of a debtor/creditor relationship is the master and the other is the slave. If, on the other hand, a creditor gives mercy to someone without requiring that the debtor pay him back for his effort, the creditor effectively becomes the debtor’s slave, especially if they learn to depend on their benefactor more and more as a result of his generosity.
For Richer or Poorer
After 30 days of spending like crazy, Brewster comes through it all sadder but wiser. He’s not the man he used to be. He has to pull out of an election he joined as a joke after he comes shockingly close to winning. On the last night of his $30 million adventure, he sits in awe of a room that he could die in – only to see it instantly get demolished because it was just a temporary commission he couldn’t keep. He blows the last of his money on a somber party for himself and some friends. And then he has to watch as all of his expensive rented clothing is confiscated by its rightful owners, and he is left with the plain clothes he wore as a pauper at the start of the film.
He has come full circle, but he is not the man he once was. Rupert Horn’s painful lesson worked. Brewster no longer has the bearing or temperament of a poor man. He truly deserves the $300 million waiting for him because he will never entertain the thought of squandering it. He was beaten down and shown what a worthless man he used to be, but now he’s ready to be a millionaire, in mind as well as in actual fact, as though he had earned all of that money himself. His $30 million education was worth every penny. If only we could all be so enriched.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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