The lucre of love
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, cautionary tale, PG-13, Regal Stadium 14, 2.5 chiles In 1988, Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko, the cutthroat Wall Street shark who voiced the mantra of the decade: “Greed is good.” Douglas is just as fine an actor now as he was then, and he plays the same character in this generation-later sequel, but he is not going to win a Best Actor Oscar for the role this time around.
Much of the weakness is in the writing. There is a softness to Oliver Stone’s return to the blood sport that is the financial market. Gordon Gekko is back, yes, but he is a Gekko with warmer blood than a lizard ought to have. He’s still scheming and conscienceless, but there’s a core of high fructose corn syrup inside that hard shell.
What really hurts is the quality of his wit. Writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have saddled Gekko with thin gruel in his menu of one-liners. “Someone reminded me I once said greed is good,” Gekko tells a lecture audience. “But now it seems it’s legal.” There is appreciative laughter from the crowd, but they’re extras being paid. And when was greed illegal?
His proudest zinger, one that anchors the film’s trailers, is the one he lays on the story’s archvillain, the soulless hedge-fund tycoon Bretton James (Josh Brolin). They meet and exchange unpleasantries at a $10,000-a-head charity dinner and dance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I’ll make a deal with you,” Gekko purrs silkily. “Stop telling lies about me, and I’ll stop telling the truth about you.” It’s a nifty line, but it’s older than your grandfather’s false teeth. Variations of it can be traced at least as far back as the 1890s, to a New Mexico industrialist named J.J. Hagerman, and it’s
been a staple of political repartee for more than a century.
The bedrock premise of the story is that despite what you may think, good people once ruled the arenas of high finance. Louis Zabel, the head of a Bear Stearns-ish outfit who is played with gusto and a delicatessen growl by Frank Langella, is mentor and father figure to the film’s hero, a young trader at his firm named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Jake is a go-getter — Zabel hands him a bonus check for more than a million dollars right off the bat — but his specialty is in the idealistic field of renewable energy. He’s trying to help a scientist (Austin Pendleton) make a go of a cutting-edge project called United Fusion, which seeks to convert sea water into energy on a commercial scale. But Zabel’s firm crashes and burns, Zabel does the same, and Jake goes to work for James, the man who orchestrated the disaster, with revenge on his mind.
Where’s Gekko through all of this? As the movie opens, he’s being released from prison in 2001 after serving eight years for insider trading. He reclaims his possessions, including a cellphone the size of a toaster, and walks out the gates to a lonely world where nobody is waiting for him.
There is a daughter, but she’s not speaking to her father, because he was in stir when the family was falling apart, and she blames him for her brother’s suicide. Her name is Winnie, and she is winningly played by Carey Mulligan. Winnie is the film’s real moral anchor, running a “lefty website” that champions green causes. As luck would have it, she’s living with Jake, and Jake makes overtures to Gekko and tries to engineer a rapprochement between father and daughter.
It’s a welcome development, because after his prison release Gekko disappears from the movie for a while and is missed. For an inveterate mover and shaker, Gekko hasn’t made much progress between his release and 2008, when this story gets underway. He has written a book — Is Greed Good? — and is doing signings in malls. He jumps at the chance to reconnect with his daughter, and one of the film’s most effective scenes is their reconcilia-
Green is good: Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf