“You’re all pretty much fucked,” Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko tells a large crowd of admiring college students and a few slightly older fans in the single most memorable—because truest—line in “Wall Street: The Money never Sleeps,” Oliver Stone’s sequel to the 1987 original.
The line underscores how much we’d missed Gekko’s villainy. For those of us who lived through the junk-bond and merger-and-assassination follies of the 1980s, that villainy looks so amateurish in retrospect, so small-time compared to what turned into the $50 trillion bet that, had it not been for the federal government’s intervention, would have crashed the world’s financial and social systems in September 2008.
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That was the size of the credit-default swap market (four times the size of the entire U.S. economy and twice the size of the stock market in 2008), one of the obscure insurance betting ploy at the center of a crisis catastrophic enough to make us nostalgic for Gekko’s good old crookery: its sort has been around in American (or any) capitalism ever since the word broker was associated with procurers, pimps and panderers, back when Wall Street’s whores were the more virtuously carnal kind. But crookery that bet on the entire world’s economic system—that’s enough to humble even a man like Gekko.
So here he is in 2008, the financial system is heading for ruin, and Gekko, seven years out of prison, seemingly reformed of his greedy old ways and selling his book to make ends meet, is predicting what’s about to happen.
“You don’t know it yet,” he tells the fictional crowd in a Fordham University lecture hall, “but you’re the Ninja generation. No income, no job, no assets. You’ve got a lot to look forward to. Someone reminded me the other evening that I once said greed is good. Now it seems it’s legal. But folks it is greed that makes my bartender buy three houses he can’t afford with no money down, and it’s greed that makes your parents refinance their $200,000 house for two fifty. They take that extra fifty and they go down to the mall. They buy a plasma TV, cell phones, computers, an SUV, and hey, why not a second home? I mean we all know the prices of houses in America always go up, right? And it’s greed that makes the government in this country cut the interest rates to 1 percent after 9/11 so we can all go shopping again. And they’ve got all these fancy names for trillions of dollars of credit—CMOs, CDOs, SIVs, ABSs. You know, I honestly think there’s maybe 75 people in the world who know what they are. But I’ll tell you what they are. They’re WMDs. Weapons of mass destruction.”
The Live Review
It’s as good a sum-up of the financial crisis as you’ll get in a minute or less, and there’s not much fiction about it. The script, written by The New Yorker’s Stephen Schiff and Alan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire” and “21”), is a rewording of Michael Lewis’ thesis in The Big Short (Norton), published earlier this year and so far the most lucid book on the 2008 financial crisis. “At some point between 1986 and 2006, a memo had gone out on Wall Street, saying that if you wanted to keep on getting rich shuffling bits of paper around to no obvious social purpose, you had better camouflage your true nature,” Lewis writes. So Wall Street’s hot shots spent those two decades (nearly three, actually) inventing one deceptive cheap money scheme after another with leveraging at its core—borrowing and betting on ever larger margins of risk, with ever more obscure financial devices that no one—not the Federal Reserve, not the ratings agencies, not the investment bankers, and certainly not government regulators—understood.
Gekko is exaggerating when he says 75 people understood how the schemes worked. “The big Wall Street firms, seemingly so shrewd and self-interested, had somehow become the dumb money,” Lewis writes from the non-fictional but more fantasy-ridden end of things. “The people who ran them did not understand their own businesses, and their regulators obviously knew even less.”
But Oliver Stone isn’t into documenting. He’s not much into lecturing either in this sequel, even though the more interesting parts of the movie are its engagement with the crisis itself—the tribunal-like men of the Federal Reserve sitting along an immense table being turned on them by a dozen of the nation’s largest bankers, the collapse of an investment bank that looks like Bear Stearns, the occasional OpEd in the form of speech, like Gekko’s, that explodes pretenses of control or idealism in a system by definition shorn of both.
Rather, the movie is about a strangely configured and entirely asexual ménage à trios: Jacob “Jake” Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is just as young as Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox was in the 1987 “Wall Street” (before the other Fox attacked) but just a tad more morally centered, a little less sleazy, and so less interesting, because LaBeouf’s performance doesn’t rise beyond tight-asses earnestness. It’s one dimensional. The guy is brilliant, opportunistic, and desperately clings to his good nature, or his girlfriend Winnie, the very dull Carey Mulligan who pulls off a good stare but still comes off like a younger left-wing version of Patricia Heaton. Mulligan’s Winnie is uninteresting for being a caricature of the goody liberal out to save the world. It’s a difficult act to pull off—being uninteresting, that is—because she happens to be Gordon Gekko’s daughter.
Estranged, of course. She hasn’t spoken to her farther for years, ever since her brother’s death (suicide, drug OD, something like that) while her father was in the slammer. That she blames her father for that death, even though he’d been locked up and she’d been visiting him up until then, and had promised him a trip to Europe when he got out, is one of several strained plot devices that don’t quite work, though it’s not too hard to look past them, though for a girl so ostensibly smart she’s pretty dense not to realize she’s shacking up with a younger edition of her dad—and with one deceiving her just as much as the older one in a few important ways: Jake, you see, idolizes the older Gekko and wants to reunite father and daughter. That’s what this movie is really about: the angles and twists of a love triangle that happens to hook around Wall Street.
Because it’s an Oliver Stone movie there’s hardly a dull moment. He doesn’t just tell a story, He weaves it with hilarious self-references (about himself as a director, about Gekko as a fictional character), he drops Charlie Sheen in for a clever cameo (with a pair of hookers, of course), he uses Susan Sarandon (she plays Jake’s mother) as the hyper-typical over-leveraged Florida fool hooked on flipping properties and living the bubbly high life of a real estate broker until the bubble pops.
And then there’s Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography, which alone is worth the price (not surprising, considering that Prieto also shot “Brokeback Mountain,” winning himself an Oscar nomination). Prieto’s New York City isn’t intimate or even familiar; it’s from the outside-in, and on a couple of occasions even felt like those between-scene shots of “The Apprentice” (traffic signals changing, crowds jamming sidewalks). But for the most part the camera’s sweep manages both to revere and mock the big solidity of the skyscrapers, at times hammering the point home with some devices that work (the clever superimposition of stock-ticker graphs’ manic movement with the Manhattan skyline) and some that don’t (literally, falling dominoes).
Stone is getting old, which is excusable, and sentimental, which, for an artist and polemicist, is not. Michael Douglas’ performance can only save the movie so many times before he too is sucked into the sentimentalism, though “Wall Street”’s flaws aren’t fatal. They’re merely annoying. The original “Wall Street,” remember, was not all that evenly good either (Daryl Hannah’s performance alone was probably responsible for a good chunk of the 1987 stock market crash, though the movie was a few weeks from release yet: word of her awfulness must’ve leaked to the trading floors). There’s nothing that terrible in the sequel, but nothing as great as the old short-circuitry of Bud Fox frying Gekko. It’s as if the meltdowns of the Reagan 80s were manageably comprehensible, but those of the Bush 2000s were too overwhelming, too high voltage, to handle. So Stone went the easier route of managing his ménage, with Wall Street as his canvass.
But the glue that keeps it all together isn’t really the story or the financial crisis. It’s nostalgia. It’s what you feel by the time the final credit sequence rolls to the sounds of “This Must Be the Place,” by the Talking Heads, who also peaked in the late 1980s—the same song from the 1987 original, when Bud Fox is watching the re-decoration of his home with his new, ephemeral riches (“I’m just an animal looking for a home/Share the same space for a minute or two”). And nostalgia not just for 1987, but for a time when America could take seriously a man like John Kenneth Galbraith, the great economist and Stone-inspiring writer, whose appearance before the Senate Banking Committee on Sept. 8, 1955, to warn of speculative bubbles, was front-page news.
The market was beginning to rise fast back then, after its long post-1929 slumber. “Some remarkably fanciful explanations are beginning to appear to explain the recent rise in values and to reinforce hope for more,” Galbraith told the banking committee, as if anticipating the Neil Cavutos of the world. “And while it would be a gross exaggeration to say that there has been the same escape from reality that there was in 1929, it does seem to me that enough has happened to indicate that we haven’t yet lost our capacity for speculative self-delusion.”
“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” is playing at the Epic Theatres of Palm Coast in Town Center at the following times, all afternoon and evening: 1:40, 2:40, 4:35, 5:35, 7:30, 8:30. Running Time: 2:25