It could have been a wonderful life
On Christmas Eve 2008, in upstate New York, George Bailey contemplates suicide. Cynical jeers about him reach the underworld, where Mephistopheles Mouch, Fallen Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to George. George has been an unusually valuable asset. Hell has big plans for him. So if he is able to delay George’s suicide, Mephistopheles could earn a demonic supervisory position.
To prepare him for his mission, Mephistopheles is shown flashbacks of George’s life. The first flashback is from 1986 when 12-year-old George abandons his younger brother Harry to drown under the ice at a frozen lake.
Another scene has George shoplifting, as usual, after-school at the local drugstore. George realizes that the pharmacist, Mr. Gower, distraught over his son’s death from the flu, has accidentally added poison to a child’s prescription. George couldn’t care less, distracts himself by playing a video game, and the child dies.
His home behavior is so outrageous and disrespectful that his mother spends most of her days in a state of inebriated melancholy. Over a beer at a local tavern, his father solemnly promises never to have another child.
Upon graduation from high school in 1992, George plans to leave on a world tour of nudist beaches and sex clubs in Mexico, France, and Southeast Asia and then obtain an MBA. At the graduation party, in a drunken stupor, he is reintroduced to Mary Hatch. As freshmen, Mary and George had a one-night stand following a high school family-life-education seminar in which they learned the intricacies of safe sex.
Their walk to a motel is interrupted by news that George’s father, Peter, has died of a stroke. After three days in the motel with Mary, George postpones his travel so he can defraud his mother of his father’s estate. After securing the bank accounts, he takes a controlling interest in the Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan.
Henry Potter, the richest man in town, wishes to dissolve the Building and Loan to eliminate it as a competitor. The board of directors vote to keep the Building and Loan open. But George conspires to sell the B&L to Potter, after driving it into bankruptcy, for pennies on the dollar. George and Mary move in together after Mary recovers from a botched abortion.
Eventually, George helps Potter establish Pottersville, a profitable and expansive slum housing project subsidized by the federal government. Potter successfully lures George into becoming his assistant, offering him $270,000 a year. George is tempted, but demands $500,000. Potter agrees, admiring George’s greed. Potter sends George to the Clinton Foundation as a summer intern to fine-tune George’s money-moving skills. In New York, George befriends Mary’s uncle, Bishop Ted, at “Chez Jesuit,” an upscale gay bar, where he helps Uncle Ted vacate the premises just before a police raid.
During the second Gulf War, George launders funds from Russia to supply arms secretly to Iraq. He is momentarily distracted by Mary’s #Me Too sexual harassment charges, but he avoids indictment and settles out of court for $300,000. In 2007, George invests his entire life savings—including his interest in the Pottersville projects—in Goldman Sachs, hoping to ride the wave of profits from the lucrative subprime mortgage trading.
After George completes the deal, Potter enters the office and George taunts him by grabbing the newspaper and reading the investment-page headline reporting windfall profits. Due to extensive insider trading, Potter knows the subprime mortgage bubble is about to burst. He says nothing, knowing it is only a matter of time before George is financially ruined.
In the aftermath of the subprime collapse, George frets that he may face criminal charges. In frustration he beats his new live-in girlfriend to an inch of her life, following up with an all-night drinking binge.
The next day, George desperately appeals to Potter for a loan. When George offers his $5 million life insurance policy as collateral, Potter says George is worth more dead than alive and phones the FBI to have him arrested.
George gets drunk again at a downtown strip club and is involved in a fight with the bouncer before he leaves. Bishop Ted refuses his phone call because George has defaulted on a pledge to the bishop’s annual appeal. George stumbles to a nearby bridge, planning his suicide. Here the film’s narrative catches up to the time of the opening scene.
Mephistopheles tries to convince George that he has much to teach the new generation of investors. He offers George a sweetheart real estate deal, urging George to check with his stockbroker. Suicide can wait, he insists. Intrigued by the business proposal, George does not jump. But he does not believe Mephistopheles’ subsequent claim that he is George’s assigned demon.
When George says he wishes he had never been born, Mephistopheles decides to grant his wish. He shows George an alternate timeline in which he never existed. Pottersville is named Bedford Falls. The city is a congenial place, with many happy family homeowners and successful small businesses. The Bailey Brothers’ Building and Loan business is thriving, providing loans to working middle-class customers because George never rode it into bankruptcy. An immense steeple directs attention to a church at center of the city where a priest celebrates a daily Tridentine Mass.
George’s mother does not recognize him. She is secure and happy in her old age, with many grandchildren. Mary is married with a successful and honest husband and seven children. Bishop Ted, with a fractured skull and dislocated jaw, is serving hard time for an attempted sexual assault of a minor.
It’s a wonderful life.
When George insists that Mary is his live-in girlfriend, she screams for the police, causing George to flee. The local SWAT team gives chase. George, now convinced that Mephistopheles really is a demon, runs back to the bridge and jumps off, as the SWAT team riddles his body with bullets. The earth opens and he is swallowed up in the fiery bowels of Hell.
Mephistopheles, without promotion, returns to prowl the earth where there are many more souls to devour. Potter remains outstanding.
The last scene has Potter happily receiving a check for $5 million, the proceeds of George’s life insurance policy. After a stiff drink, he goes to bed early with chest pains and shortness of breath. As he drifts off to sleep, he wonders whether after 60 years it’s time to get back to church.
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