Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Ratings - MPAA (PG-13), USCCB (A-III), Roger Ebert (3 stars), Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 stars)

IMDb Listing -
CNS/USCCB Review -
Roger Ebert's Review -

I confess that I did not like Oliver Stone’s first Wall Street [1987] movie. I agreed with Stone’s anger and sentiment that the ethos of Wall Street was one of unbridled greed and that the investment hot shots of that time had convinced themselves that “Greed is Good.” Still, precisely because I had such a low opinion of Wall Street, I had little interest in paying to see a movie that would only support what I already believed and would only get my blood pressure up.

So why did I go see this second Oliver Stone movie on Wall Street taking place today, twenty years later? Well, I’m twenty years older. So is Oliver Stone (who co-wrote and directed the first movie and now the second) and so is Michael Douglas (who played the iconic villainous investment mogul Gordon Gekko in the first movie and does so again in the second). And having seen the movie, it is clear to me now that all of us have mellowed with age.

Now Stone’s condemnation of the excesses of Wall Street remains in the second movie and perhaps it is more savage than in the first and it comes from a stunning extended response given by Michael Douglas’ Gekko to a question asked him at a presentation Gekko is shown as giving to an auditorium full of finance students at a university in New York. In his response, Gekko declares that the excesses for which he had been sent to prison had become “legal” and that financial crisis of our time was caused by “everyone drinking the same cool aid.” Still despite this blanket condemnation, the overall tone of the second movie is softer and more human than the first.

Even in the first movie, Stone tried to complement the story of the big-shots on Wall Street personified by Gekko, et al, with the lives of “regular people” personified in the portrayal of the parents of the young “up and coming hotshot” Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen), including Charlie Sheen’s father Martin Sheen who played Bud Fox’ union card carrying airline mechanic dad. But in the first movie, the contrast of the two worlds (investment banker Gekko’s world on one side and the world of Fox’ parents on the other) seemed to me to be too shrill and contrived.

In the second movie, Shia LaBeouf plays the role of the neophyte on Wall Street, Jake Moore. However, Jake is portrayed as being someone a bit more mature than Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox of the first movie and one who had been exposed to a wider (and often better) set of mentor figures than Fox. Moore’s more rounded character is the first of many softening improvements over the first movie. A second improvement over the first movie comes in the character of Jake’s mother played by Susan Sarandon, who I believe is possibly the second movie's most compelling character. Introduced in the movie as a former nurse turned real estate agent who had gotten quite adept at “flipping” houses and condos for a profit during the past housing boom, she seemed lost in the new realities following the housing boom’s collapse. And it is LaBeauf’s character plays her conscience even near the beginning of the movie, when she still hadn’t grasped the new realities of the economic downturn, chiding her: “I used to be so proud of you when I was a kid. My mother saves lives for a living! What could be better than that?” Her journey in this movie is at least as important as that of Gekko’s and fills-out the true significance of Gekko’s condemnation of the current economic situation given above.

All in all, if the devil was entirely _outside_ “us” (and in the person of Gekko) in Stone’s first "Wall Street" movie, the devil (Gekko) turns out to not be entirely bad and arguably redeemable in the second and one comes to appreciate that there is plenty of evil (and good) to spread around. And as one who has matured some as well over these twenty years, I do believe that such new insight (and acceptance) does come with age.

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