“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is a fitting sequel to the 1987 film that won the Best Actor Oscar for Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. Oliver Stone’s revisiting of greed and corruption on “Wall Street” comes at a time when we have just dodged the bullet of a second Great Depression. [Or have we…?]
The film opens with a scene of Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas’) release from what is billed as Otis Federal Prison (actually Sing Sing) in 2001, after spending 8 years behind bars for insider trading and other financial misdeeds while working as a trader on Wall Street. When Gordon’s personal belongings are returned to him, the huge cell phone is the most anachronistic object. It’s huge, by today’s standards. He walks outside to find no one waiting for him. One imagines the scene to be analogous to what would occur if Bernie Madoff were ever to be released from prison years in the future.
The backstory involves Gekko’s desire to reconcile with his daughter, Winnie (Carrie Mulligan). He says several times, “Winnie’s all I got left.” Unfortunately, Winnie has not talked to Gordon in years, the result of her feeling that, had Gordon been there, her brother Rudy would not have died of a drug overdose.
These scenes must have cut very close to the bone for Michael Douglas. His brother Eric died of a drug and alcohol overdose on July 6, 2004 at age 46. Couple that with the recent incarceration of Michael Douglas’ adult son Cameron for trafficking in meth and you have a man who can relate to the scenes he plays opposite Academy Award nominee Carrie Mulligan (“An Education,” “Never Let Me Go”) as his daughter Winnie.
With the recent announcement (Aug. 16, 2010) that Michael Douglas has Stage 4 throat cancer, many of the movie’s lines take on added significance, such as this one: “Time is the priority, not money.”
Shia LaBoeuf as Jake Moore is in love with Gordon’s (Michael Douglas’) daughter Winnie and has proposed marriage. She has accepted. He is a trader on Wall Street and she runs a left-leaning liberal blog called “The Frozen Truth.” To a veteran movie-goer like myself, it is noteworthy that, when Jake (LaBoeuf) wants to break news to the world, rather than going to the “New York Times” like Robert Redford did in “Three Days of the Condor” or to the “Washington Post” as in “All the President’s Men,” Shia LaBoeuf goes to his girlfriend Carrie and has her break the story on her blog. (Maybe there’s hope for www.WeeklyWilson.com blog!).
One of the best things about this film is the script, written by Allan Loeb and Steven Schiff, based on the original characters from the 1987 film created by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser. With the excellent lines that have been scripted for them, all the actors give tour de force performances. They’re uniformly outstanding, starting with Douglas, LaBoeuf and Mulligan and moving on to Josh Brolin as bad guy trader Bretton James, veteran character actor Eli Wallach as Jules Steinhardt, Frank Langella as Jake Moore’s elderly mentor Lou, and too many other veteran actors and actresses to mention each by name (Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon plays a small part as Jake’s mother and Sylvia Miles from the original film has an even smaller part as a real estate agent.)
Then there are the real people who played small parts as themselves, like Warren Buffett, Jim Cramer, Anthony Scaramucci (the founder of the hedge fund Skybridge Capital), director Oliver Stone as an investor, and Thomas Belesis, the CEO of the trading firm John Thomas Financial,playing a Yul Brynner-like cigar-smoking, sunglasses-wearing trader at the fictional firm Keller Zabel.
It was Vincent Farrell, the chief investment officer at Soleil Securities who told Stone that a character based partly on J.P. Morgan Chase & Company Chief Executive Jamie Dimon in a scene involving a late-night meeting, would not have his jacket off or his tie loosened. Farrell said, “He would not have his jacket off. He just wouldn’t, because he’s The Man. You might have that with government employees like Tim Geithner, but not with the Masters of the Universe.” It was also interesting that the actor who portrayed a character seemingly based on Timothy Geithner (in the film,he’s the NY Fed chief) was Geithner look-alike actor Jason Clarke, last seen on the television series “The Brotherhood” and as John “Red” Hamilton in the Johnny Depp movie “Public Enemies.”
Here are a few of the lines from the film that will give you an idea of its flavor: Frank Langella, as Louis Zabel, the old trader at the fictional firm Keller Zabel, (which seems to have been modeled on Lehman Brothers) says, “It’s no fun any more. It’s just a bunch of machines telling us what to do.”
On September 15, 2008, IRL (in real life) Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy following the housing and credit crash on Wall Street. It was the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, with Lehman Brothers holding more than $600 billion in assets. The U.S. government turned a deaf ear to pleas for help from Lehman Brothers to help it remain afloat. Later, the government decided that AIG was “too big to fail” (a line recapped in the film) and bailed out that financial institution (and several others), using U.S. taxpayers’ money.
In this fictional account of recent history, Lehman Brothers is represented by the fictitious firm of Keller Zabel, which sees its shares plummet from $79 to an offer of $2 a share. In the film, the take-down of the firm is engineered by bad guy Josh Brolin portraying trader Bretton James, who bears Louis Zabel a grudge. There are many stand-ins for real Wall Street firms in the film: the fictitious Churchill Schwarz (Goldman Sachs?) and the nefarious Locust Fund, as well as Hydra Offshore Oil, which is LaBoeuf’s pet green project that aims to find a way to turn water into a substitute for oil. (Austin Pendleton, usually a comic character, plays the serious scientist heading up Hydra.)
At one point in the movie, Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf) asks Michael Douglas’ character Gordon Gekko, “Are we going under?” Douglas responds, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Jacob says, “What’s the right question?” And Gordon responds, “Who isn’t?”
Telling old hand Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) that “Your valuations are no longer believable” and ruining the firm he founded drives Lou to commit suicide. Much of the rest of the film is about Jake’s desire to exact revenge for his mentor’s death.
The scene in the college auditorium where Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), fresh out of prison, is lecturing has been in heavy rotation in trailers as television ads for the film. Among other things Gordon says (courtesy of scriptwriters Loeb and Schiff): “You’re the NINJA generation: No income. No job. No assets.” Gordon also repeats his mantra that “Greed is good” and says, “Now, it seems, it’s legal.” He says, “Only 75 people in the world know what they are talking about” regarding Wall Street traders. “The beauty of the deal is nobody’s responsible because everybody’s drinking the same Kool Ade — The mother of all evil is speculation” as Douglas comments on “borrowing to the hilt.” Listening to the cancer-stricken Douglas (Stage 4 throat cancer) call the Wall Street situation “systemic, global — it’s a cancer” hits home on a number of levels. “He’s (Lou) one of the toughest guys who ever wore shoes” is a description that also resonates, given Lou’s fate. Shia LaBoeuf relates to Gordon Gekko how Lou (Frank Langella) saw to it that he got a scholarship to Fordham.
Another great bit of dialogue: “Money’s a bitch that never sleeps, and if you don’t keep one eye on her, you may end up with it gone forever.” Susan Sarandon has a small part in the film as a nurse-turned-realtor. She is constantly asking her stockbroker son to bail her out as the housing market crashes. At one point, Shia says to his mother about the housing market, “What’d you think: it was just going to shoot up in perpetuity?” as he writes out checks to his mother for $200,000 first and, later for $30,000. When Shia LaBoeuf reveals that Bretton James has just offered him a job with his firm, Douglas says, “You just rocketed to the center of the Universe.” A later stunt by Jake to get even with Bretton, which involves spreading rumors that may not be true, leads Douglas to warn LaBoeuf, “You induced others to trade on information you knew to be false,” warning him that this, too, is a crime punishable by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission).
There are several metaphors for the fragile yet brutal nature of Wall Street trading, including a framed tulip photograph (and a story that goes with it) and a painting that is supposedly by Goya. As a seasoned moviegoer you know that, sooner or later, one character or the other will smash either the framed tulip picture or the Goya painting.
I enjoyed the line that Douglas utters when Jake Moore comes to him and tells him that Bretton James “screwed me.” Douglas replies, “Shocker.” Another gem is Douglas’ line, “They (greedy traders) never die. They just come back in different forms.” Here’s another bon mot from Gordon Gekko (Douglas): “When choosing between 2 evils, I always like to try the one that I haven’t tried before.”
Roger Ebert, in his review, said of the film, “It’s a smart, glossy, beautifully photographed film that knows its way around the Street. I wish it had been angrier. I wish it had been outraged.” He also said that the 6-minutes shorter film has “a smoother conclusion” than when it was shown at Cannes. The end of the movie disappointed me.
I liked this movie, although it didn’t hold my interest as well as the equally-long movie “The Town.” There were two things that I didn’t like as much as Ebert did.
One was the music, (original music by Craig Armstrong and Bud Carr as Executive Music Producer). The music for “Up in the Air” (Rick Clark supervising) was much better suited to the film’s themes. At the end of this movie, the song playing over the credits is a reggae-influenced song, which seems somehow out of synch with the world of Wall Street. Jazz, maybe, but reggae? It’s as incongruous as the traders removing their jackets or unbuttoning their shirts.
The other thing that disappointed me was one of two reconciliations that take place at film’s end. I don’t want to ruin the film for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll just say that one of them seemed appropriate and consistent with the character(s) and one seemed contrived.
A recent line from George Clooney’s “The American,” scrawled on my notepad,also seemed to fit this movie: “You are Americans. You think you can escape history. You live for the present.” Ebert ended his review this way, “Maybe Stone’s instincts are correct and American audiences aren’t ready for the anger and outrage. They haven’t had enough of Greed.”
(SOURCES: Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps;” Chicago Tribune, Sept. 25, 2010, “Wall Street Insiders Open Up” by Nathanial Popper; Moline Dispatch and the Rock Island Argus, Sept. 24, 2010, “Street Dreams” by Roger Ebert.)