Monday, November 15, 2010

Wall Street 2: Wake up, Money!

Caution: Wall Street 2 spoilers ahoy! Quick, grab the DVD, watch it and come back. It's cool, I'll wait.

Remember Wall Street? Greed is good, Michael Douglas in ugly '80s shirts puffing cigars the size of Manhattan and sneering contemptuously at the camera? Now THAT was a cool flick, right? It was powerful, well-executed and equally well-received, both for its storytelling and the underlying message. It's a slice of Hollywood history now, and is counted amongst the better films made by the actors involved.

The sequel came out recently. I might have paid to see it.

It wasn't a bad movie. Not really. It wasn't particularly good either. It felt like another sequel-for-dollars, a chance to make some bucks on the cachet of the original. Luckily they had Shia LaBeouf, unquestionably the most powerful character actor of the decade on board, delivering complex dialogue with absolute conviction.
Less luckily, I didn't particularly care for the story being told. It was a bare-bones romance tale at its heart, clumsily examining the effect of greed on personal relationships. Just to punch up the emotional payload a bit, Oliver Stone also heaped a steaming wheelbarrow load of mawkish father-son metaphors on the interactions between LaBeouf and...well, pretty much every other bloke on screen. None of them ever went anywhere, so it just left me wondering what the overall message of the film was meant to be ("'Be true to your father'? No, 'money changes everything'. Wait, um, 'Lays chips lead to suicide'? Uh...")

Shia LaBeouf''s Wall Street Guy character is implausibly paired with a (naturally) pretty girl who runs a not-for-profit environmental crusade website. She is, of course, Gordon Gekko's daughter, providing the tenuous emotional link to the earlier film. It seemed like an interesting setup, but rather than exploring the clash of values between Wall Street Guy and Enviro Girl, the story clumsily whitewashes over their contradictory value systems by having Wall Street Guy fight for investment bucks to fund a clean energy project (fusion, hurray!) Which totally makes sense, right? Because dozens of companies have made their fortune building fusion power plants (hint: no they haven't). For the first half of the film, Wall Street Guy stumbles through a weirdly rushed tale of corporate chicanery in the name of revenge, doing some clever financey stuff that ends up costing his mentor's nemesis millions. Enraged, Nemesis Guy wreaks a terrible revenge on Wall Street Guy by offering him a high paying job. And a motorbike.
I confess I spent the second half of the film imagining how much better it would have been with Transformers in it, but I did get the gist. Gordon Gekko came back, conned Wall Street Guy into handing over the hundred million dollar trust fund he gave his daughter (which she, of course, refused to touch, because she was a Complete Idiot), then buggered off with the cash and picked up where he left off, cigars and ugly shirts and all. Dispirited by the complete lack of robots in the movie, Gekko's daughter dumps Wall Street Guy and goes back to her teepee to weave blankets for orphaned badgers or something. She refuses to see him again, despite his strenuous efforts, and repeated assurances that Transformers 3 would be a way better movie. ("Seriously, Optiums Prime breakdances! And, uh, Mechatron is my father!")
Wall Street Guy fixes everything though. He sends Gordon Gekko videos of his unborn child (I tells ya, those ultrasounds creep me out. I always think of Alien). Gekko's heart melts at the sight of a flickery black and white cross section of a human foetus, and he comes back to talk to her. He happens to lob just as she is being hounded by Wall Street Guy again; the very moment she is making it clear they can never be together, Gekko meerkats into the frame. He says some stuff that didn't matter, then says how cool families are, and sorry about all that other stuff, and can we be friends? It's the climax of the film: Gekko retreats from his 'Greed is Good' mantra, admitting that family matter more to him. Wall Street Guy and Enviro girl reconcile and everyone lives happily ever after in a fusion-powered future.

So the apparent message in this movie is that it's not about money. You can survive jail, rebuild your fortune, see your enemies crushed beneath your chariot wheels, succeed in every way. But none of it is worth so much as the love of your grandchild. It's a powerful message, and one that compels Gordon Gekko to reconcile with his daughter.
But why did he come back to see her?

So he could give back the money.

And despite the lead couple's apparently irreconcilable differences, this one act brings them together where love and the impending birth of their child could not. Granted, it was an enormous sum, but to suggest that makes a difference is to say that money IS the only thing that matters to everyone; it's just our price that varies. Before she had the hundred mill back, she wouldn't even touch Wall Street Guy, but the moment she saw the cash? Bam, back in his arms. Granted, the money went to his pet fusion project, but nothing about him had changed. She walked away from him because, she claimed, her father would hurt them. She was right, but the way he hurt them was to steal a trust fund she had decided never to touch (wait, what?) Resuming her relationship with wall Street Guy because her father came back into their lives flew in the face of her own values. And common sense. It muddied the morality-over-money message that Stone was reprising from the first film.

Or maybe the message is that greed is good? Charlie Sheen's character in the original was torn between his blue-collar roots and the siren-call of high finance; the sequel's protagonist is Wall Street from his mousse-laden up-and-comer haircut to his thousand-dollar shoes. Michael Douglas paid for his greed in the first one with a lengthy jail sentence. This time round, stealing the hundred mill form his own daughter left him rich, powerful, popular and still part of her life. No consequences whatsoever for his actions. Maybe Oliver Stone's telling us that the system is so broken, that morality is now so compromised that even at the movies, the bad guy gets away with it. Maybe he's saying we all need to stand up and say "Enough, Wall Street! No more bonuses for crooked investment bankers! No more free rides for fat cats, no more bailing out the corporations with our taxes!"

Or maybe not.

I tried to see a message in this thing. I really tried. But when I walked out, I was convinced that Oliver Stone was simply saying "Look, I got a bunch of chimps and filmed them flinging bananas at each other. Gimme fifteen bucks and I'll let you sit in a sticky popcorn-strewn seat and watch it. And if you don't like it, go blog about it or something. I'm rich and you just gave me fifteen bucks, so who's laughing now, smart guy?"

And if you still think this guy was trying to stick it to The Man On Wall Street with this movie? Take a good look at the product placement. Every phone was a Blackberry. Every motorbike was a Ducati. Every beer was a Heineken, the whisky was always Johnny Walker Blue (and check the Chinese business delegation's reaction to receiving a bottle: "We will not agree to this deal!" "Wait, here is some Johnny Walker Blue!" <gasp> "Minion! Where is my checkbook?"), and the suicidal father-figure chose Lays chips as his final meal (and we don't just get a product shot, we get a voice-over announcing the brand! You can't BUY that kind of publicity. Oh wait, yes you can.). Now, I'm cool with product placement. I get a phone with my job, I don't eat chips, beer tastes like vat scrapings to me and I would still have bought a Ducati if they were twice the price and I had to fistfight the salesman for it, so pummeling my subconscious with product sightings is about as effective as hitting Mike Tyson with complex double entendres. But when it's so blatant that it distracts from Shia LaB's subtly nuanced performance, it's time to back it off a notch.
I dunno, maybe mister Stone needed a new wing on the mansion, or the carpet in the private jet was getting a bit threadbare. Whatever the reason, I hope the poor guy managed to scrape up enough coin from this film to cover these essentials. I'm just kinda peeved that he did it by banging loudly on my iMax glasses and shouting "Hey! HEY! Buy this stuff!" every three minutes twenty seconds.

But I showed him. I used a discount voucher and saw the movie for ten bucks. Who's laughing now, smart guy?

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