The death of one person is a tragedy, so the saying goes, but the death of a million people is a statistic. This is the model Oliver Stone has chosen for his latest history lesson for the masses, WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, an explication of why the world financial markets collapsed in 2008. By focusing on the impact of that event on a personable trader, Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), the idea of making and losing a fortune in one day becomes concrete. The nefarious dealings that have little to do with sound financial practices and more to do with old grudges and massive egos is revealed in all its petty glory. To bring the lesson home all the more vividly, Stone has resurrected one of his most memorable characters, Gordon Gekko, a character so potent that he has become a pop-culture archetype, and his catch-phrase, Greed is Good, the battle cry of the practitioners 1980s excess.
The 80s were a long time ago, as evidenced by the clunky mobile phone returned to Mr. Gekko upon his release from eight-years imprisonment for insider trading among other offences. Broke, alone, but burning with resentment, ambition, and, yes, greed, Gekko wastes little time before returning to the spotlight as the author of a book that makes a splash by explaining exactly why the financial establishment is about to implode. It’s 2008 and he is shortly to be proved right. He is also more than an amused bystander. His estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), is engaged to Jake, an investment banker with wide-eyed ideals about business ethics, and with a new-found need for his own brand of vengeance when a well-placed rumor about his over-leveraged place of employment topples it with breathtaking speed. Jake is ripe for Gekko’s guidance in the art of the payback, as well as the sort of manipulation we expect from the master of the game. Refined in its approach, Machiavellian in its subtlety, and devastating in his effectiveness.
This being an Oliver Stone opus, the mythos is all important. Thus does this universe exist a half-click away from reality. Plot points and events are too pat. Winnie despises all things Wall Street, yet has given her heart to a true believer. Jake’s mother (Susan Sarandon) is a realtor about to be burned by the collapse of the housing market. The smug billionaire Bretton James (Josh Brolin) who sealed Gekko’s fate is also responsible for gutting the investment bank where Jake worked, and the subsequent suicide of Jake’s mentor (Frank Langella).
Never mind. Despite the artificiality of the plot, Stone has made the lovers at the core of it all too tender, and with that vulnerability he has given them and the audience the necessary hook to pull the story along, fueled by earnest, unabashedly emotional performances by Mulligan and LaBeouf. Then there’s Gekko. Michael Douglas returns as an older, possibly mellower Gekko, but one with the same confident smile, the arrogant assurance, and lethal charm, played with a palpable pleasure that makes the character repugnant but infinitely fascinating. This is Gekko with time running out and a need to re-connect with the daughter who has cut him out of her life. The situation plays upon the audience, drawing it in with the unlikely hope of redemption tempered with a wary sense that this is a man whose greatest pleasure isnt money, its winning.
Using the nation’s financial failure as the backdrop for a tale rich in the father issues for which Stones work is identified serves to make the government the ultimate father figure. The bankers, his unruly and irresponsible sons and daughters scrapping with one another like Cain and Abel, then running to him for succor and salvation that may or may not be granted. Stone reinforces it all with his startlingly effective use of imagery that is impossible to resist, even when it is as obvious as the use of bubbles floating through the air, and equally impossible to pluck-out from memory. Frenetic stop-motion, or a scene of the elite gathered in their frippery that hearkens back with its soft glows and vulgar excess to the Gilded Age of robber barons.
There is an element of playfulness to WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, and one of history that transcends the film. A photo of Kirk graces a wall behind Michael as he is being fitted for a suit. A Warhol of Jackie Kennedy graces another. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) runs into Gekko at a party. Stone himself makes a cameo admiring a ribald piece of air-inflated art. It’s in keeping with the faint but irrepressible hope that infuses the story and that invites the viewer to take the long view rather than focus on the bottom line.