Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I'm a big fan of the 1987 Oliver Stone film Wall Street. But when I saw the previews for his sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I felt a little trepidacious. Why did Gordon Gekko spend eight years in prison for a crime that real-life inside traders like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken served a fraction of time in comparison? Why do we see a daughter in the trailer but not the son, who appeared as a little boy in the original? And what is Gekko going to do with that monstrously oversized cell phone? I went with a friend to the Los Feliz 3 Cinemas to find out.

The movie starts out with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) being released from prison in 2001 after serving eight years, with no one arriving to pick him up. Cut to seven years later, where Gekko's daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) wakes her boyfriend, Jake Moore (Shia Lebouf). A top Wall Street broker for the firm Keller Zabel Investments, Jake's first instinct upon waking is to turn on CNBC. There, in addition to the everpresent ominous stat for the price of oil near $142 a barrel, is Gordon Gekko himself, promoting his new book titled Is Greed Good? Though Winnie throws the remote at the TV in disgust over her estranged father, who she blames for the suicide of her brother, Jake seems fascinated.

Jake's position at Keller Zabel seems secure, even though the board discourages his enthusiasm for a nuclear fusion project to bolster the firm's alternative energy assets. He receives a $1.5 million bonus from his managing director, Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella). Jake considers Lewis his mentor, so when Lewis soon after commits suicide in the wake of the collapse of Keller Zabel, Jake is distraught. He gets engaged to Winnie, then seeks out her father Gordon at a lecture he is giving. An interesting bond develops between Jake and Gordon where in exchange for opportunities to communicate with his estranged daughter, Gordon provides Jake with information to destroy Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who Jake believes profited from Keller Zabel's collapse and Gordon believes was responsible for his long jail sentence.

The intricacies of the plot are well executed, and I have to give the writers Allen Loeb & Stephen Schiff credit for creating an involving sequel that isn't just a retread of previous material. They also did a great job explaining that it wasn't just the securities fraud in the first film exposed by Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen, who has a hilarious cameo) that sent Gekko to prison for seven years, there was additional charges he believes Bretton, who he had a falling out with, was responsible for. I also think Oliver Stone did a masterful job of style and pacing. It was almost as though he reached back to his 80's style of elegant sweeping cinematic shots as opposed to the lightning quick edits of his 90's films. At times his visual allegory is a bit overstated, such as the multiple shots of floating bubbles, but I love how he highlighted the skyline of New York City as a visual metaphor for the rise and fall of the stock market. Plus this movie had great performances all around, but especially from Michael Douglas. He's not in as many scenes in this as in the original, but his presence is felt when he's gone. His effect on others and the world he inhabits is palpable; he's like the Hannibal Lector of the financial world: when and how he stakes his claim seem to be always on his seemingly all-powerful terms.

But there are some glaring problems with this film that keep it from greatness. I won't provide spoilers here, but the final scene is atrocious. Both in style and content, it's just too simple and sentimental to give any cinematic satisfaction. But I also had a problem with the way nuclear fusion was used as a deus ex machina to solve all our environmental and energy problems. I could buy using it as a plot device within some science fiction futuristic movie like Back to the Future, but within the realm of Wall Street as the Economic Meltdown of 2008 occurs, it just isn't plausible. Sure, there are companies out there exploring the technological possibility of nuclear fusion. But there wasn't a company two years ago on the verge of a realistic breakthrough, and there certainly isn't one now.

This was one of the issues I discussed with my friend over drinks at the Dresden Room after the movie. I think Stone was cleverly sly about the way he wove the issues surrounding oil production and energy use into the context of the story. He accurately detailed the financial reasons behind the 2008 Economic Meltdown such as sub-prime mortgages and debt in investment and commercial banking, but always in the background, whether through visual graphs or Gekko referring to alternative energy as "the next bubble", was the underlying issue of energy. I think Stone understands implicitly that while money represents the ability to do work, energy is the ability to do work. The problem Stone shares with the overwhelming majority of Americans, as evidenced by his yearning for a fusion energy future, is that he's still hanging on to the notion that there is something out there that can solve all our energy and environmental problems and still keep the economy growing. I've come to the conclusion the majority will maintain that notion until we're well past the peak of oil production. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.


Tanya Savko said...

Thanks for this great review! I was thinking that I wanted to see it, and now I definitely do.

Robert Paulsen said...

Definitely worth checking out! Especially if you're a fan of Douglas' performance in the original, he keeps it up in this one.