The previews lied. The promise was a sequel, 23 years later, to match the exciting original Wall Street that made character Gordon Gekko’s pet phrase, “Greed is good!” an accurate if tragic mantra for the times. What we get is a nicely photographed mess, replete with confusion, pointlessness, cardboard characters and a script that would have been given an F in Screenwriting 101. Oh, and don’t believe that you’re going to see any exciting motorcycle chases either–the one near-miss you see in the previews–that’s the whole chase. Hoodwinked again! Somehow director/co-writer Oliver Stone (Wall Street, Platoon, W., and World Trade Center among others), one of our most distinctive American filmmakers, got shanghaied by trying to do something big, rather than something good.
Gekko (Michael Douglas) is out of prison after a five-year legal battle and nine years behind bars. He’s broke, friendless, estranged from his family, out of touch with the real world. But such obstacles never stopped a guy like Gordon Gekko. Seven years later he appears again, hair coiffed, shoes polished, and clad in a perfectly tailored Italian suit–on a book tour for his best-seller “Is Greed Good?” He’s predicting the coming financial disaster based on the real estate house of cards, but no one other than the book buyers gives him any credence.
Verbalized only in passing, but much more interesting, is Gekko’s higher purpose in life–he wants payback to the false friends who betrayed him and sent him to jail. If the movie had kept to that storyline exclusively it would have been a heck of a tale. But it got all splayed out with dysfunctional family dramas, fancy penthouse apartments, synopsized headlines, and bad dialogue. Worst of all, I was hoping to gain some insight into the financial crisis centered in Wall Street (as The Social Network does so well with Facebook), but that didn’t happen. All I learned from this movie is not to trust guys who wear bright blue shirts.
Gordon’s estranged daughter, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) hates her father for not being there–he was in prison–when her brother overdosed. She claims to hate everything about Wall Street yet she’s engaged to a mini-version of her father, an ambitious, talented trader, Jake (Shia LaBoef), who as his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) points out, always had “the hunger.” Winnie feeds her non-materialistic façade by working for a muckracking non-profit website, ignoring the fact that she’s got $100,000, 000 in a trust waiting for her when she turns 25. Yeah sure, she reveals, she’s going to give it away.
Meanwhile Jake is making millions working for Louis Zabel’s legendary investment company. The fly in his ointment is Mom, played by Susan Sarandon, lovely as always, but affecting some kind of repulsive New York accent, who is always borrowing money from Jake to keep her real estate investments afloat. Guess what? Mom’s investments are a microcosm of the nation’s. While her investments keep losing money, we’re supposed to realize that her situation is replicated thousands of times over. But Jake is an expert in feel-noble alternative energy, so all the money he makes at work on fake real estate investments is supposed to be okay.
Meanwhile financial reality is catching up to the greed moguls. Louis Zabel (read Lehman Brothers) fails in his attempts to get other investment banks and the government to help his tanking firm and the legendary company fails. He throws himself under a subway train.
Meanwhile Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a major power broker in bad energy, read oil, is conniving to keep government investigators off his back and forget the nastry doings he did to Gekko so long ago. Somewhere in the mix is 94-year old Eli Wallach, who is a riot–in his three scenes as the geriatric genius of financial finagling, he can’t remember his lines so he does this hilarious bird whistling thing instead of saying anything coherent. He fits right in with the rest of the movie.
One betrayal after another, most especially Gordon running off with his daughter’s $100 million, leaving her dumbfounded fiancé Jake in the lurch, and Bretton James, after humiliating Jake on that nefarious motorcycle ride, gets his just desserts. And then thanks to a sonogram, everybody’s hunky dory at the end. Winnie loves Dad, Jake loves poverty, Mom even gives up real estate and goes back to her former profession as a nurse. Eegads, it’s awful.
As I said, the cinematography (by Rodrigo Pietro, Brokeback Mountain) photography is really, really stunning–incredible aerial shots of the exterior of New York City buildings that give beauty and grace to the concrete and glass megaliths inside which the financial fate of the world is determined. The photography alone is worth the price of a matinee admission.