Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

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Someone reminded me I once said greed is good. Now it seems it’s legal—Gordon Gekko

It has all the ingredients of a good movie. If I may plagarise Marlon Brando: it could have had class; it could have been a contender. As it is, the movie is a let-down.

I had high hopes for this film. The first Wall Street defined the 1980’s, capturing as it did the greed-is-good ethos of the sharks in suits then ruling the citadel of finance. My longing was heightened by the subtitle of the sequel, Money Never Sleeps. It has a conspiratorial allure to it, hinting at undreamed of corporate maneuverings. So I was looking forward to an epic story of the mother of financial storms, a tale that would illuminate the inner workings of capitalism.

Sadly, director Oliver Stone returned to Wall Street and couldn’t find much inspiration to add to the first effort. Maybe it isn’t surprising. An American liberal, Stone sees finance as being driven purely by the voracious greed of alpha thugs. He had filmed it once in part one and given us his take on greed. Doing it again, even with style, would have been repetitive.

The way Stone gets around this problem is to take the banking vortex swirling out of control as a backdrop to the story. The drama is then filled by a plot almost tangential to the financial chaos. Apparently repentant, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the villain now out of jail after serving a sentence for insider trading, would like to reunite with his leftist daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who had disowned him for past transgressions. To worm his way into her favour, he needs the help of her boy friend, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf).

As it turns out, Jake, an up-and-coming trader in Wall Street with ‘green’ pretensions, also needs Gekko’s insider knowledge to even the score with Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a malevolent banker who has ruined Jake’s world-weary mentor. Meanwhile, Gekko is promoting his book, Is Greed Good?, on a tour. Stone spins his story around the dealings of these characters. Overall, the result is somewhat disjointed, a mish-mash of family drama, revenge tale, coming-of-age story, Wall Street treachery and morality tale.

In making sense of the financial malaise, Gekko gives us his version of Econ 101, warning students on his lecture circuit that “the mother of all evil is speculation. It’s a global disease”. (Has the former asset stripper reformed himself?) He goes on to prophesy that the bubble, fueled by the indebtedness of the American people, is destined to pop.

When the bubble does burst and the dominoes start falling both metaphorically and visually on screen, we get to see sombre men in dark suits resembling Mafia dons debating the weighty matter of bank bailouts and plotting the downfall of their enemies. That is the sum total of Stone’s musings on one of the biggest crashes in history, and they seem cobbled together from Newsweek headlines.

There is, of course, method to the apparent rambling. Behind it all, Stone has a trump up his sleeve. The diverse elements and plotlines are spun together and set up for a purpose: he wants to tell a Machiavellian tale. Is there, Stone asks, a limit to what Gordon Gekko would do? We know what Gekko is capable of in wheeling and dealing, but how far would he go in risking what he cherishes?

It appears that he would do just about anything to feed his greed and ego. Having won a partial reunion with his daughter, Gekko casually betrays her trust to secure his comeback in the Wall Street jungle. Far from sacrosanct, family ties and commitments, to a man like Gekko, are dispensable stakes to be bartered away in a deal if necessary. That is supposed to be the overarching theme, Stone’s last word on greed: it knows no limits.

Had the film ended on this note, it would have been unacceptably bleak to audiences used to light Hollywood dramas. Maybe Stone also has turned mellow over the years. In a final twist that seems contrived, Gekko redeems himself by returning to his daughter the trust fund intended for a green project. The family reunites in a happy ending despite the onset of the Great Recession.

As drama, the film is too loose to pack a punch. As an account of the financial disaster, it fails miserably. Crises do not spring from the moral frailties of the Gekkos of this world. Greed does play a part, but capitalism doesn’t play by the rules of melodrama—it isn’t simply about good guys versus bad guys. It is by and large impersonal, thriving on processes and flows, and it is a hungry beast forever wrecking and rebuilding its feeding ground for the next binge. It would take a director with a radically different outlook to capture its essence.

If you want to know how the crash happened, this movie isn’t for you. Still, it has its moments, primarily when Michael Douglas is in the foreground, playing it up to the hilt, filling the screen with his presence. Is greed good? No, but it has a seductive allure.

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