Last night I caught the midnight showing of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which opens today nationwide. Director/screenwriter Oliver Stone set out to place the sequel to his era-defining Wall Street against the backdrop of the financial crisis, but the new movie doesn't begin to match the original -- or really stand up on its own. Stone clearly read the best of the crisis books from David Wessell and Andrew Ross Sorkin and tried to cram them into a movie that explains what happened, but his muddled film doesn't end up saying much at all.
The movie does a nice job of placing itself in the summer of 2008, with protagonist Shia LaBeouf working at a thinly disguised Lehman Bros. as the house of cards comes tumbling down. Michael Douglas as a post-jail Gordon Gekko is now a Nouriel Roubini-esque doomsayer (Roubini has his own brief cameo in the film). While much of the talk is centered on the subprime crisis, at least cosmetically, none of the bankers is ever doing anything that looks much like contemporary banking; indeed, the deals or trades we see are all in the energy sector. Unfortunately, much of the film is devoted to the careful recitation of crisis buzzwords, usually out of context and with little explanation. Sample dialog:
Banker 1: We can't let the government step in, what about moral hazard?
Banker 2: Damnit, we're Too Big To Fail!
Banker 1: These assets are toxic!
The film devotes substantial time to making Gekko look smart by having him deliver a speech to a room full of students (and a laugh track) that mainly consists of him repeating words like "leverage" and "CDO" as the appreciative crowd sighs with satisfaction and people murmur that he's brilliant. That scene, and indeed much of the movie, would inspire any editor to get out the red pen and start in with the "Show, Don't Tell," as though Stone needed a remedial high school expository writing class.
Some scenes were good, particularly those set at the New York Federal Reserve when various insolvent firms sought government aid; the analogue of Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson rang true, and a well-cast Tim Geithner look-alike hovered around but didn't have many lines. Josh Brolin, playing the head of a firm modeled on crisis survivors Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, manages to steal every scene he's in. His creepy, whistling partner did not.
We expected Stone to achieve at least one of two goals: First, a portrait of the people at the center of the crisis -- capturing the spirit of the oughties as the film's antecedent caught the eighties zeitgeist -- but the shallow characters and cliched plotting make the movie a failure in that respect. The romance between LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan, if you can call it that, is one of the worst written and least believable I've ever seen.
Second, we hoped the movie might present a theory of the crisis; it is the first film to come out that directly inserts itself in the narrative of the crash. But Stone doesn't have any explanations for the financial crisis except that people on Wall Street are very greedy, which is good so far as it goes but not particularly compelling. A few dark hints about the Wall Street-Washington revolving door come from Brolin, and Susan Sarandon, as LaBeouf's house-flipping Mom, stands in for the subprime crisis, but the perils of securitization and the suspected double-dealing around complex financial instruments don't come in here; maybe that's too hard for a movie, but insider trading isn't what led to the crash. Predatory lending and the economic consequences of the crash don't come into play at all.
That's what's most disappointing: After a truly terrible final scene -- it's, unfortunately, not a spoiler to tell you that everyone more or less gets what they want -- the movie ends. We don't hear about unemployment or the recession, or even the political consequences of the bank bailout. This movie won't stand the test of time, either: It's too jargon-heavy and reliant on outside knowledge; right now we all have a passing familiarity with CDOs and toxic assets, but in five years, or 10, will mumbled jargon be enough?
Perhaps this crisis doesn't lend itself to film, but I'd rather see a Boiler Room-style take on an independent mortgage brokerage through the crisis. Maybe Aaron Sorkin's upcoming HBO adaption of Sorkin's book will handle the politics and intrigue of this crisis better. This is a beautifully filmed movie -- the producers clearly anticipated promotional material that frequently includes the word "stylish" -- with a cool soundtrack from David Byrne and Brian Eno, but it's missing both the substance and the spirit of this crisis.
-- Tim Fernholz