Movie Review of ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010). Oliver Stone, director. 20th Century Fox, 133 minutes.

In some ways “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010) feels more like a remake than a sequel of “Wall Street” (1987), the iconic film that focused on the inner workings of the financial markets and the scandals involving junk bonds and insider trading of the 1980s. The film earned Michael Douglas an Oscar for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko, the ruthless insider who takes down several companies before he is finally caught. His character’s name has become so tied to Wall Street shenanigans that business schools reference him in their courses. Hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci called his investment memoir, “Goodbye Gordon Gekko” (2010), knowing that no one would have any trouble understanding the reference in the title. Similarly, libertarian reporter John Stossel borrowed Gekko’s most famous line, “Greed…is good” for the title of one of his best known TV specials (1998).

The new film begins with Gekko being released from prison, so we know the time frame is 15 years after the events of the first film. But it all seems so familiar, as though we have been here before. It opens with the same sweeping panorama of the New York skyline, this time with the Twin Towers conspicuously absent. Once again the story focuses on a young, ambitious investment broker trying to break into the big time and keep up with the pros, but instead of Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox, the new kid on the block is Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Once again we watch the ticker tape of the young broker’s first big trade falling steadily until the thud of the closing bell at the end of the day. Once again the wise fatherly stockbroker is named Lou (perhaps because Oliver Stone’ own father, Louis, was a stockbroker). Once again the young broker is trying to get funding for a company he believes in. We even see the same real estate broker (Sylvia Miles) that Bud Fox used in the original “Wall Street.” And yes, Charlie Sheen does make a cameo appearance, with a babe on each arm, channeling his alter ego from the TV show “Two and a Half Men” more than the sadder but wiser Bud from the 1987 movie.

The story line is similar, too. Gekko wants revenge against a rival investor, and he uses the cocky young broker to help him get it done. The details are different, but the story is essentially the same. While “Wall Street” focused on the junk bond/insider trading scandals of the mid-1980s, “Money Never Sleeps” focuses on the economic meltdown of 2008. New York hedge fund trader and wunderkind Anthony Scaramucci acted as a technical advisor on the film, and the result is technically accurate, though sometimes to a fault. As the film moves from boardroom to boardroom and talking head to talking head, it is often difficult to understand and process their words before the next dialogue-heavy scene appears. At 2 hours and 13 minutes, the film is long, and the editing is a little too tight. We keep stumbling into conversations that have already started, between people who already know what is going on.

Often those conversations and talking heads are presented in split-screen projections, along with a graph or two, so while we’re still listening to one speaker, the next one has already started. It’s almost as though the editors knew they couldn’t make the movie any longer, but they couldn’t bear to throw anything out, so they presented it all at the same time. Some of the computer graphics are pretty cool, like the one that outlines London’s Tower Bridge in the background as it demonstrates a company’s rise and fall. I suspect that ten years from now those graphics will look dated and hokey, however.

I happened to attend a private screening in Manhattan with a theater full of investment brokers and financial experts. They all loved the film, even those who said they seldom go to movies. I’m sure that for them, the dialogue was as simple to follow as a primer. But at one point I just decided to stop trying to understand all the techno-jargon and just focus on the storyline: Something bad is happening. And those two attractive young lovers are caught up in it. That worked for me.

The two young lovers are Jake and Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who hasn’t seen or spoken to her father in several years. Jake wants to bring the two of them together again, ostensibly “to help her heal,” but really to get closer to his idol, Gordon Gekko, who, despite being a jailbird, is still packing in the crowds on the lecture circuit, where he is promoting his new book, “Is Greed Good?”

Once again, the film shines when Michael Douglas is on the screen. Yes, he is older, but he still has that great self-confident smile, that swagger. He’s still talking about greed, and he’s still just as flippant. He quips, “Once greed was good.  Now it’s legal…” and everyone laughs cynically, as though greed was ever illegal. I wanted to counter, “Theft is illegal. Fraud is illegal. Greed is human nature.”

Gekko continues, “Greed makes the bartender take out three mortgages he can’t afford … Greed makes parents buy a $200,000 house and borrow $250,000 against it to go shopping at the mall … Greed got greedier with a little envy mixed in … They took a buck and shot it full of steroids and called it leverage.” He’s right about those things happening. Many people who are underwater on their mortgages got there today by borrowing the equity out of their homes and using it to pay off credit cards, invest in businesses, or pay their children’s college tuition. Or, yes, go to the mall. Others got there because they bought at the top of the market, expecting the bubble to continue rising. But they couldn’t have done it without banks giving them outrageously unsubstantiated loans. So why are we bailing them out? Greed was always legal. It just wasn’t healthy.

And maybe the economy needed to get sick enough for us to learn that. Today people are using debit cards more and credit cards less. They’ve figured out that airline miles and rewards points aren’t really free if they come with 18.6% interest rates. It has required some belt tightening, but that’s a good thing in times like these. We’ve learned, as Gekko says, that “money is a jealous lover. If you don’t watch her carefully, in the morning she’ll be gone,” and that “speculation is a bankrupt business model.” As private citizens we are becoming more frugal and setting our own houses in order. Many businesses are building up their cash reserves instead of borrowing money, so they will have more to spend on future investments. In this economic climate, it’s in their best interest to do so. That’s called capitalism. And it works. Greed is good, but self interest is better.

Jo Ann Skousen

for The Daily Reckoning