Gekko’s back, but Wall Street is a meaner place in the noughties

2010-09-27 00:00

OLIVER Stone’s original film was emblematic of the eighties, a hymn to achievement and excess, with a moral comedown for the corrupt “greed is good” Gordon Gekko. Back in the day, asset stripping and insider trading were the evils of Wall Street, but by the late noughties the global financial markets had got so bloated and convoluted that almost no one understood just what was being traded, and the fall when it inevitably came was catastrophic.

The new film opens with Gekko’s release from prison in 2001 and then skips forward to 2008, where Jacob Moore (Shia LeBoeuf) is a young hot shot who specialises in alternative energy stocks. He’s the protegé of investment banker Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) and the possesser of a loft, a big motorcycle and a girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who’s a blogger and just happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter.

The action moves swiftly from Jacob’s receipt of a huge bonus cheque to the collapse of Zabel’s firm, but unlike on the real Wall Street, where investment banks Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were brought low by their own rapacity and recklessness, Zabel is the victim of a vindictive rival (Josh Brolin), who starts a rumour and then swoops, preaching about “moral hazard”, a buzz phrase that gained currency during the financial meltdown (gambling with other people’s money makes bankers wanton).

Having been forced to pause and reflect, Gekko now asks: Is greed good? And answers that, no, it is not. And it’s not just Wall Street that is greedy with its ability to “sell” debt as investment, it’s all those people taking out home loans with no money to repay them, the suburbanites risking all to “flip” houses in an ever-rising market.

To make a compelling movie out of the global financial crisis, Stone has to humanise the drama with a story of revenge and counter-revenge, estrangement, reconciliation and eventual redemption.

The financial drama is so complex, I doubt too many in the audience are really following Jacob’s plot and its outcome, and then we are swiftly on to the next — it turns out Gekko doesn’t want to remain an observer and prophet of doom, but to get back in the game by pulling a double-cross worthy of his old self. This aspect of the film was for me the glibbest. Gekko gets cash and parlays it into much more cash seemingly simply by acquiring the trappings of success (“I’ll take four pairs” of handmade shoes) amid the worst financial market since the Depression. Hmmm.

There’s plenty on view to enjoy, but they are shallow pleasures — gorgeous art, Jacob’s narrow-cut suits, his big bike, the New York skyline. Stone gives us sweeping helicopter shot after shot of the glories of this skyline, to the point where you’d think it’s an architecture picture. There’s also some pretty obvious symbolism, none more so than images of bubbles floating into the sky …

The cast is good (any film with Langella goes up a notch for me), and there are some amusing cameos (Stone himself, the real-life economist who warned of the impending meltdown, Charlie Sheen as his Wall Street character Bud Fox). The dialogue whips along, the soundtrack drips with good stuff from David Byrne (for that up-to-date eighties echo).

At the end, has anyone really had to pay for their excesses? Only Jacob’s mother, who has been forced to go back to “a real job, with a boss”, instead of buying and selling houses she can’t afford. Everyone else is pretty self-satisfied as bubbles drift into the New York sky.

But maybe that’s the real point.

***

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