Monday, September 20, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Wall Street" (1987)

With the sequel, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" arriving this week, I thought it time to take another look at the 1987 original. I hadn't seen Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning film (for Michael Douglas' bravura performance) since it came out in theaters.

Like the rest of Stone's oeuvre, it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer. But his filmmaking style is like heavy metal: When he hits the right chords, nobody plays with as much power or brash energy.

It's always fascinating what you remember from a film you saw once long ago. I had a clear memory of only two scenes: One is when slithery corporate raider Gordon Gekko (like I said, subtle) gives his "Greed is good" speech. That moment crystallized the perception of 1980s excess for decades to come.

The other involves Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), Gekko's ambitious young protege. Bud has started to become a high roller under Gekko's tutelage of insider information and manipulating stocks, and is looking at Upper East Side apartments.

The older real estate agent is quickly rushing him through a fabulous penthouse, registers his hesitation and decides the young man is out of his league. She calls him "kid," offers to show him something more downscale. Sheen has this great reaction where he tries to hide his resentment at her condescension, then casually orders, "Offer nine-fifty." Meaning, $950,000 (or about $1.8 million in today's dollars.) One senses he's buying the place just to impress her.

Other things slipped out of memory. Chief among those is Bud's affair with Darien, an ambitious interior designer played by Daryl Hannah. Despite her face appearing on the film's poster, I had completely forgotten she was even in it.

Watching the movie again, I see why: The Bud-Darien romance is the weakest thing in the movie, a totally flat and unbelievable pairing. Darien walks out the minute it appears Bud will no longer be able to support her lavish lifestyle, and we're happy to see her go.

The encounters between Charlie Sheen and his father Martin Sheen are as strong as I remember: Despite only a handful of scenes, the elder Sheen has a convincing, easy authority as Bud's father, an airline mechanic and union leader who sees right through Gekko's manipulations. He can't believe that his son makes more money than him, but is always borrowing cash to pay for lavish suits and a Manhattan apartment.
"There's no nobility in poverty anymore, Dad. One day you'll be proud of me, you'll see," Bud insists.
"It's yourself you gotta be proud of, Huckleberry," his dad advises.
I love that little nickname at the end, a combination of affection and paternal authority. Stone wrote the screenplay with Stanley Weiser, and if some elements like the portrayal of Darien don't measure up, it's still a thoroughly engrossing story with a lot of verve, sharp observation and smart dialogue.

Example: Gekko explains that he's just spent over $1 million to buy a seat on the New York Zoo board. "That's the thing you got to understand about WASPs: They love animals. They can't stand people."

Stone's timing with the original film was excellent, arriving right around the time of the big stock crash of '87. The sequel seems fortuitous as well, with the current economic downturn caused (in large part) by banks taking on too much bad credit.

I don't think "Wall Street" was an indictment of capitalism per se, but its excesses and the way unscrupulous people could cheat the markets. We're seeing that again today, where corporate executives accept -- demand, even -- lavish bonuses even as their companies are laying people off by the thousands.

The ideal of the meritocracy seems further away than ever, as long as people like Gordon Gekko are happy to game the system for their own benefit.

3.5 stars out of four

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