Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The Bitch is Back

In 1987, Oliver Stone made a strident, prancing picture about Wall Street greed, staring Michael Douglas as a soulless hedge-fund broker who made a killing by buying and gutting companies. Based loosely on the Drexel-Burnham-Lambert scandals, the film was a screed against financial rapaciousness, with Douglas’s character, Gordon Gekko, quotably declaring that “greed is good” as he destroys workers’ lives, while Charlie Sheen, as his protégé Bud Fox, works up the nerve to go against him (though for his own personal gain).

Sometime in the last few years Mr. Stone must have decided that the time was right for a reprise – only this time, events got ahead of him. The greed, stupidity, scandalousness, and rapaciousness of the financial crisis of 2008 / 2009 far surpassed anything that could be fictionalized or imagined by a single Hollywood director, even one with such ever present conspiratorial outlook as Mr. Stone. So while in Wall Street 2, Mr. Stone has Douglas reprise his Gordon Gekko (newly released from federal prison) and sets up a new protégé to do battle (Shia LaBeouf, who’s about to marry Gekko’s resentful daughter), the real story of greed and rapaciousness here is the actual recent news events, and that far out shadows the family drama of a pitiable Eighties trader.

However, Stone does a wonderful job of distilling that scandal into a couple of key characters and companies, personalizing it and retelling it in the context of his fictionalized Gekko family drama. The result is perhaps better than the original: more truthful and complex, though admittedly without the same dramatic punch as the original.

What we have here are a couple of stand-ins: Keller Zabel for Lehman brothers; Bretton James’ company for Goldman Sachs, and the story we get is largely the true history of how the Fed let Lehman fail and how Goldman picked up the pieces of the fallout while betting against the economy. There’s even some nearly word-for-word quoting of Hank Paulson as well as a fictionalized retelling of Matt Tiabbi’s Goldman expose in "Rolling Stone."

Perhaps as fascinating as the film was a little short piece of right-wing propaganda that my theater played just before the showing. This was some campaign film naturally declaring Obama/Pelosi as socialists out to micromanage the economy. Apparently meant to appeal to the hard-core financial audience for Stone’s movie, I found it ironic, since it’s the Republicans in the film who propose the biggest socialist act in history: Nationalizing the banks in order to save the world from calamity. To that act of government largess, none of the bankers in the room object for a second, since it basically means saving their scratch from their own popping bubble and putting them back in the game for another round of profit taking.

LaBeouf plays Jake Moore – a prop trader himself, working for the doomed Lehman stand-in. When Lehman falls, he gets his motive for revenge…and incidentally runs into his fiancés father, Gekko, who begins steering Jake for his own nefarious purposes (Gekko needs to recover some funds squirreled away in Switzerland so he can get himself back in the game). Gekko’s daughter Winnie, naturally, wants nothing to do with her ex-con father (she’s incarnated herself as a liberal, and internet blogger to boot), and so this sets up the movie’s emotional tension as Jake goes down the same route of lies and deceit as her father.

However, Stone is careful to delineate a difference between the young Jake and the manipulative Gekko. Gekko describes money as a woman – a seductress, really – who “never sleeps,” and it’s clear from the start that Gekkio is still deeply smitten. While both men have the “hunger” and personality type of a dedicated trader (addicted to fast bikes, thrills, and the macho posturing of the game), Jake also has a soft spot: instead of investing to tear down companies, he wants to build one up, specifically a company exploring a new type of fusion that could revolutionize the world’s energy supply. In other words, he’s a macho asshole with a liberal dream, unlike Winnie’s father, who’s just a macho asshole. This may be why Winnie has fallen in love with him.

But I liked this thematic distinction, because what Stone seems to be suggesting here is that there really are two sides to finance – yes, it allows assholes like Gekko and Bretton with money and connections to suck billions of dollars out of the economy for their own personal enrichment (Tiabi’s sucking squid). But finance is also the necessary fuel that allows industry, research, and innovation to move the world forward. Without investors, we would have no iPads, no wind turbines, no solutions to global problems like hunger and disease. So while Wall Street 1 was a screed, Wall Street 2 is more subtle: a cry of the heart, really, at how our best instincts and noble intentions are constantly betrayed by the greed of human nature.

LeBeouf is also a more emotive actor than Charlie Sheen, and can express deep feeling with authenticity, and so this film has an emotional core that the first Wall Street lacked. If anything, this film is Shia’s coming out movie, as he finally exhibits a range here that will serve him well as a leading man for years to come. Stone does an admirable job of simplifying the complex story of our recent economic implosion and tying it to the simple family dynamics of a family falling apart, or a mother living off the generosity of her son.

There is one thing, however, that irritated me, and that was how quickly, in the end, that Winnie forgives not only her beau (which clearly – being pregnant – she needs to) but also her father (who does nothing whatsoever to deserve it). Perhaps what Stone was suggesting here is how Winnie is like the American public, mad for a time at how they’ve been screwed, but quick to forgive both the necessary and the greedy elements of our financial system. It’s nice as a metaphor, but lacking in dramatic realism. This may be what some critics don’t like about the movie, which is how thin the Gekko story seems in the end.

But that’s to be expected. When the world is falling in, the problems of one small crook hardly amount to a hill of beans. I’m glad Stone decided to go after the larger story here. If anyone can personalize the drama of epic, nihilistic, self-destructive, American greed, it’s Oliver Stone.

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