Watch Out for the Moral Hazard in 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'

The only thing more fun that Gordon Gekko, Master of the Universe is Gordon Gekko the Underdog, trying to sleaze his way back to the top. Unfortunately, this is not that story.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella
Length: 138 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2010
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: 2010-12-21

After a 23-year disappearance, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) made his return to film. And, when he did, we were surprise to find out that we missed him.

After all, Wall Street's Gekko has a sleazy charm about him, with his whiskey, cigars, and two-toned shirts. "Gordon Gekko is a villain that has a lot of appealing things about him," film critic and documentarian Godfrey Cheshire says in "Gordon Gekko Is Back", one of two special features included in the DVD for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. (The other is a more nuts-and-bolts solo commentary with director Oliver Stone.) "When people are presented with a villain who is attractive in some ways," Cheshire continues," that’s what really resonates and puts you in sort of a moral quandary in the way that you relate to this character, because, in some ways—wow—it would be nice to be him."

The featurette goes on to say that, after the original Wall Street, Gordon Gekko actually inspired young viewers to go into finance. Instead of seeing Gekko as a villain and a cautionary tale, they saw him as a bad-ass champion. It's sequel star Shia LeBeouf who insightfully makes the comparison to the title character in Scarface.

So, like him or loathe him, Gordon Gekko is a character with a lot of meat on him, worthy of examination. It's especially interesting to hold Gekko up against the hedge-fund managers of 2008, when Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps takes place. In the spectrum of villainy, where does he fall, especially since the Street has gotten so much hungrier and greedier in his absence? The only thing more fun that Gordon Gekko, Master of the Universe is Gordon Gekko the Underdog, trying to sleaze his way back to the top. (There's just something humorous about seeing him ride the subway.)

Unfortunately, though, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not about that story. Sure, Gekko is there, just released from prison and trying to break back into the game and mend relations with his daughter, liberal-blogger Winnie (Carey Mulligan). This all happens on the fringes of the film. Really, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps focuses primarily on idealistic Jake Moore (LeBeouf). At the beginning of the movie, rumors of financial instability cause the collapse of the investment house where he works. Moore, who is engaged to Winnie, goes on a mission for revenge, leading him to Bretton James (Josh Brolin), big shot at a rival house.

James may have a Goya hanging in his office, and he may drive a Ducati, but he is no Gordon Gekko. Maybe it's that, in the wake of a real financial collapse, our relationship to Wall Street bad-guys has changed. "I'm small-time compared to these crooks," Gekko says. But James doesn't have the same slick, enviable qualities that Gekko has, so watching him just doesn't have the same sense of playfulness. The film's major frustration is that it spends most of its time watching Moore and James duke it out, with Gekko watching from the sidelines.

In Stone's commentary -- in which he talks about his father's career on Wall Street, and how the business has changed since his father's time -- the director mentions that he didn't think it would be appropriate to center the film around Gekko, a has-been trying to find his way back to success. He needed a Bud Fox -- a young man starting out in the industry -- to grapple with the power of the Street in its current lightning-fast, tech-enhanced incarnation. Instead of being lured into the decadent lifestyle, like Fox was in the first film, Moore has to decide if he can work on Wall Street and still make positive changes in the world.

That makes sense, but it still doesn't explain James' function in the film. Generationally, he's halfway in-between Gekko, an old-timer, and Moore, who understands better the current way that Wall Street operates, with financial products so complex that physicists had to create them. In that way, James seems redundant to them both, and weighs down the story heavily.

When Moore isn't bogged down by James and Gekko, he's trying to maintain a healthy relationship with Winnie -- who is even more of a slow drain on the story than James. Winnie, who works for a lefty blog that -- gasp! -- is not-for-profit, is a total stand-in for "good person." She's not really a character so much as a barometer against which the other characters can measure how evil they've become. If she cuts off all contact with a character -- as she has with Gekko upon his release from prison -- then he's gone too far off the Wall Street deep end and can't be redeemed. If she has a relationship with them -- as she does with Moore when he promises to invest in a green-energy company developing fusion technologies -- there's still some good there.

Why Winnie would be in that milieu to begin with is unexplained. Even Gekko says, "You don't think it's strange that she's dating someone from Wall Street? She hates it." The question is never answered. (I wonder how she even met Moore.) Yet, Winnie is there, looking miserable in almost every scene.

While Stone's human relationships feel more symbolic than real, he does demonstrate a better understanding of the financial system and its collapse in 2008. He delivers a thorough picture of America's relationship to debt. Gekko lectures against it on college campuses -- even Moore's mom, a real-estate agent, is in insurmountable debt trying to maintain three properties until the market turns around. He features two extended scenes at the Federal Reserve Bank, where back-room deals for bank bailouts are discussed. These scenes, as opposed to the slog of the human drama, hum with electricity.

It makes one wonder if Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps would have been more successful if it were entirely procedural, in Paul Greengrass kind of way, but with Stone's slick graphics and visuals. Because, as opposed to the millionth story where a guy has to find a balance between true love and piles of money, seeing our recent history play out on screen -- with bad bank managers getting beat up for failing at their jobs -- is far more cathartic, especially when glossed over with the sheen of Gordon Gekko.


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