“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” is arguably the seminal speech from 80’s cinema, a speech that defined the political and social tone of the era. To see then mainstream film star, Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, criticise the crumbling capitalist state would have been both fascinating and shocking. Even now, looking back, the original Wall Street had an edge and a bite to it. The film could have come from no other director than the polemic, provocative Oliver Stone who built up a strong reputation for going against the grain of popular thinking, stirring things up among the political establishment. Every film he made seemed to carry a message which was strongly drilled into you from the very beginning. From Platoon right through to the heavily controversial JFK. So now what we see is an interesting time in the economic market with the recession and particularly with the bail out of the banks and the other financial repercussions across the globe, it is time for Stone to step in.
And for logical reasons, it would seem right to bring back the great villainous Wall Street mogul, Gekko and say something radical about the situation we have been in for the past two years. For Stone, Gekko’s story of trying to survive and figure out the economic market after years inside prison is interesting. Stone has said of Gekko that, “he’s a quintessential American story, and seeing how he manages to survive in this new shark tank 22 years later is a fascinating and challenging proposition. So much has changed. Not just Gordon Gekko. The world too.” It sounds like a fascinating proposition and the right time to bring the iconic character back. What is therefore odd about the film is that not only is it not about that, but oddly for an Oliver Stone film particularly on this subject, it lacks bite.
The story is in fact more concerned with a new character called, Jacob Moore played by Shia LaBeouf, who is a Wall Street trader who is navigating the financial globe amidst the forthcoming monetary crisis. At the start of the film, Moore’s mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) kills himself after being blackmailed out of his company by business rival Bretton James (Josh Brolin), Moore is distraught and wants to figure out why and how this happened. Meanwhile, Gekko is released from prison and promoting his new book “Is Greed Good?” but through Moore, tries to build himself back up and also re-establish connections with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who is connected romantically with Jacob.
The result of the film is frankly a confused mess. While in the original you had the various plotlines of the strained father-son relationship and the insider trading story coming together wonderfully, here the plotlines are roped together in the most cumbersome of ways. Plus there are far too many plot strands to keep track of to frankly care about what is really going on, some of the plotlines work and some of them do not. Oddly the bits that do work are all the scenes with Gordon Gekko, it feels as if he is the only character they have confidence in but they don’t use him enough. The storyline of his build back to the top while in the crisis is really good but not developed properly. Gekko trying to reconnect with his family is at times engaging but other times is self indulgent and sentimental and his corrupting of the young Moore is barely noticeable mainly due to Shia LaBeouf’s unconvincing, monotone acting.
But most surprisingly, where I thought the film would deliver in commenting on the state of the globe due to recession, it descends into waffle about the cancerous effect of the financial crisis but never actually shows one of the main characters battling the misery of losing money. In fact, if anything, everyone is completely minted by the end of it. Had it wanted to have any relevance in an ideal world it would have been made at least a year and a half ago, where the financial crisis was at its height, it would have been a more interesting film. There are also occasions where it gets unforgivably preachy, and in order to establish the film’s liberal credentials it flags up the fact that Moore is trying to get money in order to fund a sustainable energy project. It seems a tad pointless to be honest, and it smacks of lazy, soapbox flag waving instead of making a sensible addition to the machinations of the film.
The screenplay is clearly lacking in one element, which is that of Oliver Stone. Despite what you think of him as a filmmaker, whether you like him or not and whether you disagree with him politically or not, the films he has made have shown just how much of a provocateur he is, and all the more brilliant for it. Even if you vehemently disagree with what Stone is saying in a film like JFK, his argument was convincing and it displayed evidence while keeping the drama there and explaining it to you without descending into condescension. Here, because he isn’t in contact with the script, the film is incoherent and resorts to flashy spilt screen visuals and off putting montages to keep you interested. It is evidence of laziness, and while I never thought I would say this of Stone, it is a film he has appeared to have made for money. Think about it, his last films have been hideous flops, either critically or commercially, right the way back from Alexander through to World Trade Center to most recently W. Now he appears to have gone back to this character of Gekko, who is pretty much pre-sold and hired ” the most profitable star” Shia LaBeouf in order to make some money for himself. Kind of ironic, don’t you think?
There are also silly scenes which deserve no place within the film, including a completely random motorbike race between Jacob and Bretton as well as a mawkishly idiotic epilogue which should have immediately hit the cutting room floor. Then there are colourful, ripping montages of numbers flying through streets and counting down, in addition to this there are line graphs which take the form of the cityscape to demonstrate the decline of the wealth in companies. All the scenes seem to be there for no other reason than to entice a mainstream, blockbuster audience. I have no problem with this usually, I just wish it weren’t so crushingly obvious that is what they were doing. Adding to this problem are some ridiculously ham fisted imagery of dominos toppling and bubbles bursting, adding a whole other level of unwanted pretension. Oliver Stone was never exactly subtle, but we could tell Josh Brolin’s character was evil without the Goya painting of Saturn devouring his son in his office.
On the good front however, it is kind of nice to see this character back on screen, particularly with Douglas, who is a very underrated and underused actor and is wonderful in the role. He captures the slimy magnetism of that character perfectly, which makes him both loathsome but likeable at the same time. In other areas it is very well acted, despite me thinking the scenes of Gekko and his daughter sentimental, Mulligan and Douglas playing that together is what makes it dynamite. Douglas is also underused, there is enough of him there to keep me interested, but whenever he wasn’t on screen, which is fairly often, I was quickly bored. For example we are introduced to him in the very first scene: him getting out of prison, there is an inclusion of a good sight gag of having his brick sized mobile phone being returned, and then he disappears for a good half an hour.
The one weak link is Shia LaBeouf, who is just spectacularly miscast. I don’t believe he is a hardened, up and coming trader and I certainly don’t buy how he is so liked by both Gekko’s daughter and other companies. It’s not really his fault, he’s just not a very good actor, and it shows when he has to share screen time with the other impressive array of actors: Brolin, Mulligan, Langella, Susan Sarandon and Douglas. Had he been a secondary character, simply a tool in Gekko’s way back to the top, it wouldn’t have bothered me as much. However, because the drama revolves solely around him, the issues with him are more apparent.
This should have been the film which defined 2010. It should have given us insight into the financial crisis while still coming off as dramatically engaging and coherent. As it is, it’s a subpar effort for Oliver Stone and one of his limpest works, the biggest problem from a directorial standpoint being the imbalance between the emotional and economic storylines. His politics seem to have oddly cooled down, which is a shame because whenever there was a time for him to be angry at the world, it’s now.
Lazy directing on the behalf of Oliver Stone, the miscasting of Shia LaBeouf and an often incomprehensible plot turn this film into a total mess.