Saturday, February 5, 2011

Movie review of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Inspired by an economy crippled by the greed is good mentality, filmmaker Oliver Stone created a sequel to his 1980s classic Wall Street.

The 2010 movie Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens with Gordon Gekko's release from prison in 2008. The famously reptilian Gordon receives a cold reception from a world that has moved on without him, but he limps along with a book deal for his prison memoir "Is Greed Good?" With book sales and speaking fees, he can pay the rent, but is it really possible that the brilliant and amoral Gordon did not tuck away a shiny chunk of his former fortune?

The remnants of Gordon's family have no desire to see him. His son has died of an overdose, his wife divorced him long ago, and his daughter, Winnie, knows better than to attempt a relationship with her toxic father.

Her fiance, Jake, however is intent on contacting Gordon. Ostensibly Jake wants to patch things up between Winnie and Gordon so she can heal emotionally, but deep down Jake wants to learn the secrets to success from the notorious Gordon. Jake is a hot shot trader employed by a large investment bank. Keeping afloat an alternative energy company researching fusion is Jake's dream. With oil prices skyrocketing, he sees his plans all coming together, but the historic financial collapse fueled by junky mortgage backed securities and insurance derivatives puts his employer on the gallows. Jake's employer is a fictional version of Lehman Brothers that was allowed to fail at the beginning of the crisis. Then later in the movie, the government bailout of all the investment banks is also portrayed.

Gordon is naturally in awe of the level of criminality that is allowed to go on. He calls the investment bankers the real criminals. He's nothing compared to them. Although Gordon's claim that his crimes were victimless is a stretch, he is right in that the crimes of the current titans of finance ruined the lives of millions and continues to do so.

As the drama unfolds, Jake learns that Gordon did set aside $100 million in Winnie's name in a Swiss bank account. According to Gordon, Winnie is supposed to stake him when gets out of prison so he can start over. Winnie wants to give it to charity, but Gordon lures Jake to his side by offering to give the $100 million to Jake's languishing alternative energy enterprise. Jake convinces Winnie to cooperate and Gordon assumes the role of laundering the cash. Of course any $100 million deal involving Gordon Gekko means one thing: Gordon gets the money. He immediately starts a new trading company in London and is happily back to playing his favorite game. He's says it's not about the money. It's about the game. 

How does Money Never Sleeps compare to the original Wall Street?

Sometimes the sequel tries too hard to remake the original. For example, when Jake stokes the Wall Street rumor mill with multiple phone calls, the split screen montage is the same as the one used in the first movie.

As for Gordon, he remains as ickily charming as the original character. I adore Michael Douglas and always admired the Gordon Gekko character who embodies the winning at all cost philosophy that runs the world. In Money Never Sleeps we actually get to see a bit of humanity in Gordon. He actually has feelings. The man who always insists that you can't let emotions interfere with business is masterful at exploiting emotions to get what he wants. Gordon does even utter the line "I am human." And he is. Many people are just like Gordon.

A highlight of the movie comes during one of Gordon's speaking events. Addressing a large crowd of university students, he declares that they are the ninja generation, meaning they have no income, no jobs, and no assets. The audience titters nervously as he bluntly informs them that their futures are screwed. This speech is an intriguing reprise on Gordon's famous greed is good speech to shareholders in the first movie. He is no longer cheering on capitalists for being capitalists. He's now informing the masses that rabid unregulated capitalism has consumed their financial futures in a gluttonous frenzy that holds no one accountable.

For people who love the first movie like I do, Money Never Sleeps is an interesting sequel. The script is good. The scene where Gordon runs into Bud Fox is a hoot. A mostly lucid Charlie Sheen plays the scene like everything between him and Gordon is water under the bridge. Overall, the movie is a bit of a meandering mess, but it has important messages. I appreciated watching it.