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Movie Review: Why Wall Street Slept

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If you put 100 economists in a room and ask: honestly, who believes that government deregulation, Wall Street traders or hedge fund directors helped to create the meltdown of 2008? Most hands would raise. Add the question: who do you blame most? The responses will vary, but I don’t think any would nominate Mother Nature. Now economists and laymen rightly believe that someone is to blame and that neither Wall Street, investment houses, nor banks were asleep. On the heels of the fall, people want change and they want it now. One prescient director, Oliver Stone, adds his voice to the chorus calling for change in the financial industry with his drama–Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Stone, one of the cognoscenti of film, sits in the director’s chair to enlighten us. And he has earned that rep and that right with film masterpieces, including JFK – a perfect piece of cinematography that even this great director has not reproduced with another film, either in its intensity or honesty.

JFK is nonfiction braided with honest speculation. His latest film, Money Never Sleeps, is a work of fiction that sets out to fix our fears about the involvement of government, bankers, and financiers who conspire and engineer the 2008 market meltdown with discrepant results. Powerful stuff that needs the full Oliver Stone treatment because former millionaires and billionaires jump from windows, drop before express trains, pull triggers, but few go to prison.

Global monetary loss without a governor to cap the speculation is the subject of this drama. However, I think the director did not really connect the message with its messenger even though the film opens with Gordon Gekko leaving prison. Because right away we know that he still doesn’t get it. For Oliver Stone the lone messenger is the voice of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko—again.

But his actions and the real shenanigans of traders are mostly muted in Money Never Sleeps. In Wall Street, we met the anguished men who nearly lost their factory at the hands of Gekko greed but brought back from the brink, by a reformed trader.  So Mr. Stone eschews the obvious thus there are no angry workers or bilked investors in the sequel. Instead he encapsulates the desperation and rolls it up in one old, rich white man, a brilliant conceit. Then this tired, broke, CEO Lewis Zabel (Academy Award winner Frank Langella) throws himself under the train in a crowded New York subway. Here’s your angst the director tells us. But is that film-opener enough? Were the producers and director of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps thinking Academy recognition when they put this timely look at the 2008 Wall Street meltdown in a fall timeslot? I think so.

I was not so happy with the new-star-is-born media fanfare for Carey Mulligan (Winnie Gekko) because it may prove itself a jinx. Our newbie film star shifts from a budding British scholar in An Education to an angry American leftist slacker with a Website “Frozen Truth” in Money Never Sleeps.  With hurt writ across her face, Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter whines, couples, and hates her father. The hatred is reborn while watching TV in the bedroom, when her lover Jacob “Jake” Moore (Shia LaBeouf) spots Winnie’s father in a TV interview touting his new book. Virtually smitten, he plans to befriend Gordon. Then Winnie breaks out the nonstop melancholy. OK, we get that you’re mad at your dad, now can we move on? Can you give us something beside a pretty pout, no luck.

Winnie repeats her warnings to Jake that Gekko is no good but he does not heed it. The couple goes out to a fancy black-tie dinner where she has no enthusiasm to curb. Instead she skulks around a gorgeous ballroom and runs right into daddy Gekko. He is not on the original guest list. He lives in a rented penthouse with rented furniture on the left bank of the Hudson River.

At the table they make nervous small talk. And in midsentence Gordon pivots to acknowledge a passerby; before he can return his glance to his daughter she jumps up “I can’t do this,” runs outside, sits on cold concrete. Jake goes after her. The weepy Winnie (Stone has a sense of humor) reveals that Gekko will never change and she never wants to see him again. Old boyfriend is crushed. He has become the go-between and wants to broker reconciliation but she is making it impossible. The oil-and-water twosome sleeps together but don’t share the same dreams: he dreams of wealth but she, like many second generation rich kids find money the new crack.

Against her better judgment, for Jacob’s cause—green atomic energy—she consents to aid Gekko’s withdrawal of 100 million dollars tucked away in a Swiss trust fund.  On the next redeye to the Continent they sign off on documents that will release the trust funds. After the Swiss bank scene, it was way too short, they return to New York to await two little bundles of joy one paper one plastic: a 100 million dollar check and a new baby.

Tense moments arise–the entire check is signed over to father-of-the-year Gekko. 

The two older men Michael Douglas and Frank Langella are the film ensemble’s best. Charlie Sheen returns with a Bud Fox cameo appearance, nice touch. But Douglas and Langella are the horse glue that holds this film together and render meaning to the meltdown. In fact, Douglas could have done the whole damn movie by himself. Thus his relegation to a minor role baffles me. Much of his contribution to the storyline is done offstage. But we take note that Douglas in his raspy voice has still got it. He is compelling as a man ruled by unquenchable greed. Greed is good, but Douglas’s Gekko is better. I did not sum the minutes but in terms of screen time he takes a back seat to the two younger “stars,” I use that word advisedly, to ensure a wider fan base and increase box office revenue. It works.

Stone uses good versus evil to sustain our interest in a story as old as mankind itself: greed.  In the last half we don’t see exactly what Gekko does with the dough and his role in the 2008 event. But we do watch the market and the people tumble out of their minds. And Mr. Gekko grows richer while his daughter dumps her fiancé over the trust-fund fiasco. We know that market goes into free fall over derivatives, hedge funny business and outlandish ponzi schemes We know that is not fiction.

What is not dramatized is how entire towns are left holding empty bank bags, the domino-effect of bank and investment firm insolvencies, ruined lives, real estate markets, and nearly the auto industry.  Clearly, no one director or movie is big enough to haul every hurt American onscreen to testify. What we can be certain of is that this truth was foretold in a few tomes and now some modicum of truth about what happened when…has become a part of history in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.  

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  • Thanks for getting this out. But can you fix the gap between the words? Thnx