Many movies from the 1980s survive for nostalgia value, but very few survive for artistic value. For example, try to guess the Best Picture winner from 1987 without the aid of the Internet. (Answer after the jump.)
Even many film buffs might not have been able to come up with The Last Emperor, a beautiful-looking but thematically average film from Bernardo Bertolucci. The other nominees from that year which I have seen were about the same: Moonstruck (a well-executed comedy which I thought was good but not great) and Fatal Attraction (ugh, that’s awkward). The Best Actor winner from that year was showcased in this week’s Movie Klub, Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. I was equally unimpressed.
Mr. Tiger Blood himself, Charlie Sheen, plays Bud Fox, a broker at a firm on the titular avenue. Bud’s employer is basically a sweatshop for business school graduates, and he’s desperate to hit it big and leave his crappy apartment behind. This leads him to chase the business of high-powered corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Douglas). As Bud gets more deeply involved with Gekko’s operation, he gets richer and richer, but he also finds himself treading closer and closer to insider trading and fraud.
Watching Wall Street today will cause one to laugh at its dated-ness, with the giant cell phones, the lumbering dinosaur computers, and Sheen’s My Two Dads-esque decoration in his new apartment. Don’t let that fool you, though: the reason that Stone was able to make a Wall Street sequel in 2010 is that the first film’s attitudes apply equally now as in 1987. Gekko’s speech before the stockholders at Teldar Paper is known for the line “Greed is good,” but its other rhythms and themes recall many of George W. Bush’s “ownership society” speeches, in particular the assertions that America was being run like a bankrupt corporation and that owning stock affords some sort of personal freedom to the shareholders that they did not previously have.
I suppose it’s easy to see why Douglas claimed his Oscar. In a film with almost no physical action, he is a compelling villain who ratchets up the drama in every scene he’s in. He also has that George W. Bush quality of being able to sell legions of average people on an agenda that will have massive benefit for him, by focusing on the relatively small benefit it will have for them. Late in the film, when Gekko points out that the top 1% of the country controls half of its wealth, he makes that sound like a victory, like a state of being that America should aspire to. And unlike more cartoonish villains in worse movies, Douglas sells the fact that Gekko truly believes this and wants to convert others to his belief.
Now, I would not say that I’m against capitalism. I don’t really approve of the get-rich-quick attitude that often pervades Wall Street during bull markets and drove Bud to take the path he does, but I don’t have a problem with the existence of a stock market. My complaint about Wall Street is that it does seem to have a problem with the existence of a stock market. The only good and true character in the film is Bud’s working-class father, played well by Martin Sheen (yes, Charlie’s father). His position is that working with your hands and creating something is the only pure way to earn a living, and the movie bears him out. Even when Bud uses the market to help his father, the action eventually has ugly consequences.
Stone has always had a stylish streak, and I appreciated that, as this film might have been deadly boring in the hands of a different director. I just wish that work had gone more into directing the actors. It’a kind of annoying when Stone employs some kind of flashy zoom or dolly and the camera ends up on Charlie Sheen, his face as blank as a carp. Daryl Hannah’s character doesn’t have much purpose anyway, but her weirdly flat performance doesn’t help. It’s literally impossible to keep from laughing at every single line delivery from John C. McGinley, as Sheen’s friend in the trading firm.
Add in the weird performances with Stone’s signature flashy style, and the end result is something which Stone has been knocked for in his other films: Wall Street is approximately as subtle as a punch in the face. The only moment in the film where I didn’t think that the stockbroker is a curse upon the American economy was the closing credits, in which Stone dedicated the film to his own father, who was a stockbroker during the Great Depression. Wall Street is entertaining enough, but it was hard for me to take seriously, and almost as soon as I saw that title card I wanted to see a movie that was less about the 80s, and more about Stone and his father instead.
Reviewed by Mark Young