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Entries in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps [2010] (1)

Sunday
Sep262010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Poor Little Millionaires

Thank God I’m only watching the game, controlling it.

--Murray Head 

A few years ago, I attended an event where the main speaker was a millionaire CEO.  Neither myself nor any of the other people in attendance were millionaires—in fact, most of us embodied the gross statistic of earning, on average, three-hundred-and-fifty-times less than the guy delivering the speech.

He opened with a joke.  I don’t remember the particulars, but the setup had something to do with a Mercedes and the punch-line involved golf.  In the clearest example of trickle-down economics I’ve ever seen, the laughs began on-stage and petered out by the fifth row.  The closest most of us had been to a Mercedes was fast-forwarding through a car commercial during American Idol; this guy clearly didn’t know his audience.

In the case of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, director Oliver Stone has taken the stage to make a joke of ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of the people who will watch his latest film.  I’m sure he thinks he’s made a compelling polemic against the fat cats who dreamt up the 2008 financial meltdown.  In reality, he’s given us amoral banker porn that’s more distasteful than Sex and the City 2.

1987’s Wall Street ended with ruthless market-fixing genius Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) betrayed by his protégé, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), and facing jail time for shady dealings.  Money Never Sleeps picks up in October, 2001, and sees Gekko released from prison with only the clothes on his back, some crumpled legal pads and an ancient brick of a cell phone.  He’s a tarnished finance warlock with no one to love him and no place to call home, and the movie promises to be a thrilling climb back to the top.

Except that it’s not.  After the first three minutes, we flash forward to the fall of 2008 and the film shifts focus to Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), an ambitious young trader at a huge investment bank called Keller/Zabel on the eve of its collapse.  It’s in meeting Jake that the film first begins to lose its way, and, presumably, much of its audience.  He lives in a huge Manhattan apartment with his girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), and does so well at his job that his boss and mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), gives him a $1.4 million spot-bonus.  On their own, these things would not turn a viewer against a main character.  However, it’s what Jake does with the money that made me lament the fact that I had to spend another hour-forty-five with this douchebag.

He buys Winnie a ridiculously expensive engagement ring; a grand gesture, and a sweet one.  Next, he springs for a night out at a club, buying champagne for all of his friends—save for Winnie, who had to leave town on business; kind of a meathead thing to do, but still acceptable behavior by some standards.  After clubbing, he makes a bet with his friend, Robby (John Buffalo Mailer), that the rumors of his firm’s imminent failure are bogus.  He’s so confident, that he has Robby invest the left-over $1 million (!) in Keller/Zabel stock the next day.

Maybe real-life investment bankers consider this reckless flushing away of a fortune to be the heroic equivalent of Batman saving Gotham City from an exploding train, but to those not in the top income bracket, Jake Moore has just become a really unsympathetic character.  He’s probably a moron to boot, not listening to his friend’s advice, or being aware enough of his own industry’s headlines to know that he's making a huge mistake.

The film breezes past this point and zeroes in on the inevitable liquidation of Keller/Zabel.  There’s a great scene at the U.S. Federal Reserve that’s straight out of The Godfather.  Louis sits at a table with the heads of the world’s most powerful banks and representatives of the federal government and pleads for them to not shut him down.  The president of a rival bank, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), steps in to buy up Louis’s crippled empire for $3 a share (down from $78 the previous month).

Despondent, Louis jumps in front of a subway train.  This sets Jake off on a mission to find out who started the rumors about Keller/Zabel and exact revenge.  It will surprise no one that James is the villain of the story, and Jake decides to go to work for him in order to bring him down from the inside.

On a parallel track, we have Gordon Gekko (remember him?), who wants nothing more than to reunite with his estranged daughter, Winnie.  Yes, that Winnie.  In addition to being engaged to a greedy, obsessed banker, she’s the proprietor of a liberal news Web site called Frozen Truth.  She warns Jake to stay away from her father, but after Jake hears Gordon speak at a college, there’s no turning off the puppy love.  The men form a secret friendship, born of defeating Bretton James (who’d wronged Gekko in the 80s) and re-affirming a broken father/daughter bond.

Throughout the movie, I kept waiting for Gordon Gekko to become Gordon Gekko.  For the ¾ of it, he’s an incidental character, popping up to give Jake advice on his quest and make sad eyes at Winnie.  There were signs of the Academy-Award-winning smarm in Douglas’s portrayal, but the cut-throat sleaze of the first film was missing.  It almost looked like Gekko had become the story’s conscience, charged with bringing Jake back from the brink of personal and professional ruin.

Unfortunately, Oliver Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff turn the film’s climax into a poor-man’s The Usual Suspects, complete with flashbacks and echo-y voiceover.  Gekko had been playing possum, you see, just long enough to get Jake to convince Winnie to slide him over the $100 million trust fund he’d established in her name before heading off to jail.  Gekko uses the money to disappear to London, where he launches his own investment firm and becomes a billionaire—Donald Trump as Keyser Soze.

Remember how Funny People started out being about the dark, strange world of stand-up comedy and then veered wildly off-course to become a torturously un-inspired relationship melodrama?  Money Never Sleeps follows in those dubious footsteps, dragging its last twenty-five minutes through a swamp of mushy family problems.  Winnie leaves Jake.  Jake tries to get Gordon to reconcile with Winnie, if only for the sake of the baby they just found out she’s carrying.  Gordon realizes that family is more important than money; but only after his firm acquires the bank previously run by Bretton James, who got busted for essentially being Gordon Gekko.  The film ends with everyone reunited, happy, and ridiculously, impossibly rich.

The casual viewer will find nothing wrong with the ending of Money Never Sleeps.  After all, there’s a cute little baby posing for a picture with mommy, daddy and grandpa!  But do you understand what paid for that lavish party?  It was the $100 million that Gordon Gekko returned to Winnie.  Let’s break down the source and destination of that money.

The source is a lot of savvy investing and hustling from Gekko’s early days; you know, the money he made by flipping companies and destroying lives.  The destination is a company championed by Jake during the film, one that specializes in alternative energy.  Throughout the movie, as the banking/housing crisis explodes all around them, Jake, Gordon and Bretton keep talking about how alternative energy is going to be “the next bubble.”

Judging by the outcome, Jake and the Gekkos have done very well for themselves in the AE market; either they’re so confident that this bubble is un-burst-able, or they’re just confident that there’s a thick enough sucker buffer underneath them to absorb the inevitable blow.  There’s also the little matter of Gordon’s new firm, which I assume isn’t making hundreds of millions of dollars manufacturing screws and table saws for Habitat for Humanity.

I meant what I said before about this movie being more distasteful than Sex and the City 2.  At least Carrie Bradshaw and her shopping cougar militia are vapid freaks with no self-awareness.  The “heroes” of Stone’s Wall Street world wear the guise of humanity, but I’m convinced they’d each eat other alive if actually faced with the prospect of losing their life savings and luxury apartments.  I’m honestly baffled by Stone’s decision to release this movie at this moment in history.  Unemployment is high; confidence is low; our political parties are in shambles—and here comes Stone with a “Let Them Eat Cake” message for our times.

Is he that out of touch that he thinks millions of movie-goers will sympathize with Jake having to tighten his belt in order to lend his struggling real-estate-agent mother (Susan Sarandon) $30,000 (on top of a previous loan of $200,000)?

This movie is reprehensible in its preciousness, and I can only hope there’s a deleted scene floating out there that shows Gordon giving a speech at his grandson’s birthday party.

I imagine he’d open with a joke—maybe something about luxury cars and golf.  The punch-line would be met with raucous applause by everyone except the catering staff—who’d be looking at their watches, praying they get off in time to make their second or third jobs.