Ed note: If you a fan of taxes and film – together – there aren’t many nominees to root for in Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony. However, Kevin Martin generously whipped up this post to recount some of his favorite tax-related plots that made it to the big screen. Who ever said taxes are all boring?
The Academy Awards are just around the corner, and I’m sure many of you are currently predicting which of your favorite films, actors, actresses and lighting technicians are likely to take home the top prizes this year. In honor of this event, we wanted to recognize some great tax-related plots and scenes in movie history. While you might not automatically think of taxes as a big draw at the box office, the number of films that make reference to taxes is surprisingly long. Here are a few of my personal favorites (warning: potential decade-old spoilers ahead).
This 1987 Brian De Palma classic features the G-men led by Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) facing off against notorious gangster/baseball fan Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Capone rules Chicago with an iron fist; his payroll includes politicians, judges and police officers. And to take down this bootlegger and murderer, Ness’ weapon of choice is…an accountant. Ness and his allies use the Tax Code to make a case against Capone for income tax evasion. Eventually, Capone is forced to plead guilty, because while he is good at spending money, he is not so good at reporting it to Uncle Sam.
The Shawshank Redemption
Speaking of prison, this movie, adapted from a Stephen King short story, featured as its protagonist a banker wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife. That banker, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), is just another convict until the prison staff becomes aware of his highly-useful financial skills, including his substantial knowledge about taxes. In one great scene, he hears that a guard (Clancy Brown) is about to receive an inheritance, but the guard is more concerned about the taxes he will pay as a result. Andy then asks the guard if he trusts his wife, and almost gets thrown off a roof for his trouble until he reveals that by transferring the winnings to his wife he can avoid that tax bill.
Note that this rule, while it may have existed in the era of Rita Hayworth, no longer applies. The federal government does not impose an inheritance tax, and unlimited gifts are allowed between U.S. citizen spouses.
The Day after Tomorrow
There’s a short but poignant reference to taxes in this blockbuster. Several people are stranded in the New York Public Library, and they need to keep a fire going to stay alive. In order to kindle the fire, they start tearing up and burning books, but some members of the library staff protest. Eventually, they all agree that the Income Tax Code is acceptable to burn, and a crisis is averted. Once again, lives are saved by taxes!
Here, mediocre hockey player Happy (Adam Sandler) is forced to find his true calling in golf when the IRS places a lien on his beloved grandmother’s house. This film helps us learn that being “too old” is not an acceptable defense for failure to pay back taxes.
Okay, so this film may focus more on estate planning than taxes, but I wanted to include it anyway. The plot heavily features a little-known quirk in law called the “rule against perpetuities.” In the film, Matt King (George Clooney) is the trustee of a trust established many generations prior that is about to dissolve based on this arcane rule. He must decide whether or not to sell the land to investors hoping to develop a resort on the property. A sale would generate a massive amount of income for the family, but may go against the original intentions of the trust creators.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Some other tax films of note include Robin Hood (all of them), Dinner for Schmucks, Stranger than Fiction, You Can’t Take it with You, The Blues Brothers, The Young Philadephians, The Firm and Say Anything.
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