Commentary: Gordon Gekko's return is worth the wait
"I'll make you a deal," Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko says to a rival who is equal parts Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon. "You quit telling lies about me and I'll quit telling the truth about you."
And with that, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," which opens Friday, rolls into full gear. The follow up to "Wall Street," the 1987 movie that cemented Gekko as Hollywood's symbol of Wall Street excess and greed, is a fun romp. It's also director Oliver Stone's best movie in years.
I'll spare you the cinematic critique and stick to the issues. Suffice it to say this isn't "Citizen Kane."
Wall Street the sequel is preposterous in that it tries to stick closely to the events that shaped the financial crisis. Truth is stranger than fiction and the movie both suffers and gets its poignancy from the facts.
(Note: The movie is produced by Fox which is owned by News Corp., which also owns MarketWatch.)
Telling the truth is a central theme in the movie and in an industry where veracity is always in question. The volume of lies is a matter of perspective. Some financial pros who viewed the film see it as populist outrage. To them, the movie is a lie. Others will see the one-dimensional self-interest that pervades the movie's characters as validation of their suspicions.
Suffice it to say that those of us who work on or follow Wall Street for a living, will scoff at some scenes. A Wall Street chief executive, no matter how rattled, isn't going to throw a painting worth millions across a room, and none would have the guts to commit suicide when their firm goes belly-up. Not too many Fordham grads break into fluent Mandarin when dealing with Chinese investors.
The movie is full of these sort of reality-stretching spectacles. It's the kind of stuff bankers may say undermine the film's accuracy. But they're Stone's equivalent of car chases designed too keep the audience's interest.
Despite its embellishments and its too frequent shots of the Manhattan skyline, "Money Never Sleeps" finds Stone at his story-telling best. The movie begins with Gekko exiting prison. He's broke and no one comes to pick him up. The story then shifts to Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) a young trader who is dating Gekko's daughter.
Gekko writes a book and begins warning the financial industry about its practices. Moore's firm pays him an early bonus as it is about to go under -- it's at once a fictional Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.
Moore goes to see Gekko speak and is wowed. He seeks a relationship with this legend without telling Gekko's daughter. A deal is made. Gekko will help Moore avenge his company's failure -- blamed on a rival bank -- and Moore will help Gekko get back into his daughter's life.
It's a brilliant conceit that's been concocted by screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff. Like the first film, the push and pull of what's important in life -- money, family, trust -- are evoked. And like the first film, today's pressing issue of government intervention and the "moral hazard" that comes with it are probed.
Douglas's Gekko is at the center of all this and at even more than two hours we don't get enough of him. Gekko, we find, isn't really interested in rebuilding his relationship with his daughter -- something Winnie Gekko sees coming: "he'll hurt us," she says, before she's sucked in through Jake. You can guess what he is interested in.
Despite its look-ins on New York Federal Reserve meetings and use of CNBC footage, "Money Never Sleeps" isn't an accurate depiction of the financial crisis or its players. It's a cartoon. Exaggeration is Stone's device. His fans love it. Others find it irritating.
Josh Brolin, who plays that rival CEO, is so devilish one half expects him to jab poor Jake with a pitchfork. Winnie Gekko's dream of cold fusion energy is so naive and dreamy she seems to have just walked off a Disney lot after playing a princess.
And the ending? A little too neat, too happy, redemption that comes too easy. Again, this is Hollywood. If you're interested in realism, "Inside Job" the documentary directed by Charles Ferguson, opens Oct. 8. I'll be writing about that next week.
But for all of its flaws, "Money Never Sleeps" delivers when it comes to asking the question "Is Greed Good?" which also happens to be the title of Gekko's book. The answer, in fiction as in real life, isn't yes or no. It's nuanced. It's also beside the point. As Gekko says in one of his more hammy lines "It was never about the money, it's about the game."
Games, like movies are for fun. And this one delivers.