Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

“Wall Street,” directed by Oliver Stone. 20th Century Fox, 1987, 126 minutes.
“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” directed by Oliver Stone. 20th Century Fox, 2010, 133 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
“Wall Street” (1987) was one of the first films focused on the inner workings of the financial markets, and is loosely based on the scandals involving junk bonds and insider trading in the 1980s. Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his performance as Gordon Gekko, the ruthless insider who takes down several companies before he is finally caught. His character’s name has become so tied to Wall Street shenanigans that business schools reference him in their courses. Hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci called his investment memoir “Goodbye Gordon Gekko” (2010), knowing that no one would have any trouble understanding the title. Libertarian reporter John Stossel borrowed Gekko’s most famous line, “Greed . . . is good” for the title of one of his best known TV specials (1998). As the sequel to this landmark film opens, it is worth taking another look at the original.
“Wall Street” (1987) begins with a sweeping panorama of downtown Manhattan and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Seeing it today is eerie, since the Towers are now synonymous with terrorism. But it is a reminder that the Towers were once the greatest symbol of capitalism and finance. Symbols don’t matter much, however, to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). He is a young, ambitious stockbroker making cold calls to potential clients and begging them to give him “just five minutes” of their time. He eventually gets sucked into the glamorous world of massive profits from insider trading. It starts innocently enough, when, in a casual conversation over a beer, his father (Martin Sheen) mentions that a lawsuit against the aviation company he works for, Bluestar, is about to be decided in the airline’s favor. Desperate to impress Gordon Gekko with a good investment deal when he finally has that “five minutes” of his time, Bud blurts out that Bluestar is going to be getting some good news. “I just know,” he says intensely, when Gekko asks for details. Gekko knows that look.
As Bud is pulled deeper and deeper into the web of deceit, we see how easily stocks can be manipulated through a whisper here, a nod there, a phone call to the Wall Street “Chronicle” to get a stock puffed in the news, even some old-fashioned detective work to figure out what a competitor is getting ready to do.
Gekko stands as the giant of confidence, swagger, and bravado, his name already synonymous with financial villainy. And maybe for good reason–he does use insider information that is technically off limits because it isn’t available to the general public, and he often uses illegal means to obtain that information. He brags, “If you’re not an insider, you’re an outsider,” and tells Bud, “The most valuable commodity I know of is information” (as he sends him out to ferret out some insider info).
Bud doesn’t resist very hard being pulled into Gekko’s world. When his father chides him because he is so focused on earning money instead of contributing to charity, he responds, “You gotta get to the big time first. Then you can be a pillar and do good works.”
But the most famous speech in the movie (inspired by a commencement speech that Ivan Boesky gave in 1986) is delivered by Gekko, and it has actually suffered unfairly from bad press all these years. In fact, it’s pretty sound. Having bought up a large percentage of a paper company, he addresses the shareholders to convince them that they should fire the 33 deadweight vice presidents, streamline the company, and make it profitable again. As he tells them, “I am not a destroyer of companies, I am a liberator of them!” It’s an important point. Investing in stocks is not just a gamble in paper money. It is the way businesses raise capital and maintain their ability to produce, invest, and employ.
Gekko continues, “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the evolutionary spirit . . ..What’s worth doing is worth doing for money. It’s a bad bargain if nobody gains. And if we do this deal, everybody gains.”
Gekko is right on both counts. Greed is good, and he does lack a better word. If greed motivates people to work harder and produce more, it’s good. If it motivates real estate developers to buy decrepit buildings, fix them up, and sell them for a profit, the community gains. If it motivates a health food aficionado to build grocery stores that sell organic fruits and vegetables and expand the business around the world so that others can enjoy healthier food, that’s good too. But “self-interest” might be the “better word” Gekko seems unable to find. Greed is good, but self-interest is a better brand.
Unfortunately, the word “greed” carries with it a sense of unfairness, of taking more than you should get, at the expense of others. Gekko contradicts himself when he later says, “It’s a zero sum game. Somebody wins, somebody loses. Money isn’t lost or made. It’s simply transferred.” That’s a crowd-pleasing line, and it reveals Oliver Stone’s own philosophical bias. It is also a falsehood. The idea that there is a finite amount of wealth in the world, and that the only way to gain wealth is by taking it from others, harks back to mercantilism, and was the basis for the colonialist drive to plunder other nations. Adam Smith blew that theory out of the water when he showed in “The Wealth of Nations” (1776) that wealth can indeed be created and expanded, simply by adding time, innovation, and labor to raw materials. A pound of iron may be worth 10 cents, but turn it into horseshoes and it’s worth $10. Add coal, heat, and manufacturing to turn it into pins or knives or a toaster oven, and it’s worth $100 or more. Capitalism is not a zero sum game. It is the vibrant process by which the western economy has expanded to an almost incredible extent during the past two centuries.
“Wall Street” appears regularly on such cable stations as AMC and TNT, and is available on Netflix. It has held up well in the nearly quarter century since it was made. The story is compelling and the acting is superb, with the exception of Daryl Hannah as Bud’s love interest (Hannah won the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress of 1987, and says she has never watched the film.) I like it better than the sequel.
In some ways “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010) feels more like a remake than a sequel. It begins with Gekko (Michael Douglas) being released from prison, so we know the time frame is 15 years later. But it all seems so familiar, as though we had been here before, as indeed we have. It opens with the same sweeping panorama of the New York skyline, though this time with the Twin Towers conspicuously absent. Once again the story focuses on a young, ambitious investment broker, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), trying to break into the big time and keep up with the pros. Once again we watch the ticker tape of the young broker’s first big trade falling steadily until the thud of the closing bell at the end of the day. Once again the wise fatherly stockbroker is named Lou (perhaps because Oliver Stone’ own father, Louis, was a stockbroker). Once again the young broker is trying to get funding for a company he believes in. We even see the same real estate broker (Sylvia Miles) that Bud Fox used in the original “Wall Street.” And yes, Charlie Sheen does make a cameo appearance, with a babe on each arm, channeling his alter ego from the TV show “Two and a Half Men” more than the sadder but wiser Bud from the 1987 movie.
The story line is similar, too. Gekko wants revenge against a rival investor, and he uses the cocky young broker to help him get it. The details are different, but the story is essentially the same. While “Wall Street” focused on the junk bond-insider trading scandals of the mid-1980s, “Money Never Sleeps” focuses on the economic meltdown of 2008. Scaramucci acted as a technical advisor on the film, and the result is technically accurate, though sometimes to a fault. As the film moves from boardroom to boardroom and talking head to talking head, it is often difficult to understand and process their words before the next dialogue-heavy scene appears. At 2 hours and 13 minutes, the film is long, and the editing is a little too tight. We keep stumbling into conversations that have already started, between people who already know what is going on.
Often those conversations and talking heads are presented in split-screen projections, along with a graph or two, so while we’re still listening to one speaker, the next one has already started. It’s almost as though the editors knew they couldn’t make the movie any longer, but they couldn’t bear to throw anything out, so they presented it all at the same time. Some of the computer graphics are pretty cool, such as the one that outlines London’s Tower Bridge in the background as it demonstrates a company’s rise and fall. Yet I suspect that ten years from now, on cable TV, those graphics will look dated and hokey.
I happened to attend a private screening in Manhattan with a theater full of investment brokers and financial experts. They all loved the film, even those who said they seldom go to movies. I’m sure that for them, it was as simple as a primer. But at one point I just decided to stop trying to understand all the techno-jargon and focus instead on the storyline: Something bad is happening, and those two attractive young lovers are caught up in it. That worked for me.
The two young lovers are Jake and Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who hasn’t seen or spoken to her father in several years. Jake wants to bring the two of them together again, ostensibly “to help her heal,” but really to get closer to his idol, Gekko, who, despite being a jailbird, is still packing in the crowds on the lecture circuit, promoting his new book, “Is Greed Good?”
Once again, the film shines when Michael Douglas is on the screen. Yes, he is older, but he still has that great self-confident smile, that swagger. He’s still talking about greed, and he’s still just as flippant. He quips, “Once greed was good. Now it’s legal . . . ,” and everyone laughs cynically, as though greed was ever [[il]]legal. I wanted to counter, “Theft is illegal. Fraud is illegal. Greed is human nature.”
Gekko continues, “Greed makes the bartender take out three mortgages he can’t afford. . . . Greed makes parents buy a $200,000 house and borrow $250,000 against it to go shopping at the mall. . . . Greed got greedier with a little envy mixed in. . . . They took a buck and shot it full of steroids and called it leverage.” He’s right about those things happening. Many people who are underwater on their mortgages got there today by borrowing the equity out of their homes and using it to pay off credit cards, invest in businesses, or pay their children’s college tuition. Or, yes, go to the mall. Others got there because they bought at the top of the market, expecting the bubble to continue rising. But they couldn’t have done it without banks giving them outrageously unsubstantiated loans – or the government’s encouraging such loans to be given. So why are we bailing them out? Greed was always legal. It just wasn’t healthy for certain people.
And maybe the economy needed to get sick enough for us to learn that. Today people are using debit cards more and credit cards less. They’ve figured out that airline miles and rewards points aren’t really free if they come with 18.6% interest rates. Learning some economic truths has required some belt tightening, but that’s a good thing in times like these. We’ve learned, as Gekko says, that “money is a jealous lover. If you don’t watch her carefully, in the morning she’ll be gone,” and that “speculation is a bankrupt business model.” As private citizens we are becoming more frugal and setting our own houses in order. Many businesses are building up their cash reserves instead of borrowing money, so they will have more to spend on future investments. In this economic climate, it’s in their best interest to do so. That’s called capitalism. And it works. “Greed” is good, but self interest is better.

Easy A

“Easy A.” 2010. Will Gluck, director. Sony/Screen Gems, 93 minutes.
Here’s a new twist on an old formula: boy pays girl to pretend she likes him, so other kids at school will think he’s cool. It worked in “Can’t Buy Me Love” (1987), when geeky Roland Miller (played by dreamy Patrick Dempsey) hires the lovely and popular Cindi Mancini (Amanda Peterson) to pretend she is his girlfriend. Cindi goes along with it because she desperately needs $200, but she establishes strict rules governing their relationship, and it remains chaste until after the pseudo-romance blossoms inevitably into genuine love. It’s a sweet movie about the superficiality of teenagers and the transformative power of a good haircut.
“Easy A,” however, avoids the relationship and cuts to the chase. In this film we are expected to believe that geeky teenaged boys would pay a girl simply to say “I had sex with her,” (as though boys ever had to ask permission to start rumors like that.) Moreover, we are expected to believe that a pretty, witty, and seemingly intelligent girl would be willing to destroy her reputation just to help these poor slobs out. Even more, we are expected to believe that having a one-time-only roll in the hay with the high school tramp would make a boy seem anything other than pathetic. I just don’t buy it.
As if that doesn’t require enough suspension of disbelief, we then have to buy the idea that, after she has destroyed said reputation, the guy of her real dreams would still want her, slutty reputation and all, no questions asked. I may be old, but I don’t think human nature has changed that much since my dating days.
The film is presented episodically as Olive (Emma Stone) tells her story via her webcam journal. Supposedly Olive feels “invisible” and ignored by her peers, but she is friends with one of the coolest girls at school and is invited to her parties. She seems to be friends with the jocks and the cheerleaders as well. So I don’t get this angle either.
The film begins innocently enough, with Olive making up a date with an imaginary boyfriend to avoid going camping with the family of her best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Mychalka). When Rhiannon asks for prurient details about the date, Olive goes overboard in describing a night of passion, unaware that Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the class prude, can overhear them. Marianne spreads the false story, and everyone at school starts talking about Olive and her mysterious college boyfriend. Instead of denying it or ignoring it, Olive embraces her new reputation by pretending to sleep with every boy who proffers a gift card, beginning with her gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) who wants to stay in the closet. Puh-leez!!
Coincidentally, Olive is studying Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” at school, so to demonstrate her contempt for the way others are treating her (even though it’s her own fault for lying to them), she buys an assortment of bustiers and corsets, adorns them all with deep red A’s, and begins living the martyred life of Hester Prynne. (Or so we are led to believe.)
However, as anyone who has read “The Scarlet Letter” knows, Hawthorne’s Hester is not a slut. She does not happily service every unhappy man in town–or pretend to. She falls in love–true love– with a man whom she cannot marry, and she becomes pregnant. Shunned by the community when her pregnancy begins to show, and forced to wear a letter A on her clothing as a brand, Hester lives a life of solitude and service to the community that has shunned her. She does it on her own terms, with her head held high. Through her actions, as time goes on, the “A” seems to transform from “Adulterer” to “Angel” in the eyes of many of the women in town, although they never lift the shunning. For Hester, the scarlet letter is not an “easy A.” It comes at a high cost. In fact, she names her baby “Pearl” to acknowledge the ” great price” she has paid.
Like Hester, who is persecuted by her community’s puritanical leaders, Olive is persecuted by an overzealous Christian Club at school, led by Marianne. Members of the club are presented with typical Hollywood venom. They are self-righteous, cruel, vapid, and judgmental–and at least one is a sexual hypocrite (of course). By contrast, Olive’s parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are presented as hip, witty and cool. Olive banters with them, exchanging clever word plays and literary references. But they are too hip–or too hippie– to provide any actual parenting, rules, or guidelines. “You know we accept your choices,” is all her mother says about the bizarre new wardrobe, providing a contrast to the judgmental Christian Club at school, but not much help.
School administrators are no better–the principal gives her detention for using the British curse word “twat,” but says nothing to her about wearing lingerie as a shirt. Olive’s guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow) is equally useless, giving Olive a handful of condoms when what Olive really wants is help figuring out how to undo the web of lies that entangles her.
Usually I enjoy teen films that borrow their plots from classic literature, such as “Clueless” (1995), based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and “10 Things I Hate about You” (1997), based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” These timeless stories translate well to modern settings, giving the films greater resonance and depth. But this one doesn’t work. It’s hard to root for a teenager who glorifies casual sex, teen drinking, pal parenting, and stereotypes of any kind, whether Christian or gay. (Or business. When a Quiznos mascot shows up inexplicably at a Christian protest, Olive complains derisively, “The only thing that trumps religion is capitalism.”) Oh, Hollywood. You are so predictable.
On the surface, the movie is a lot of fun. Emma Stone is a fine actress (if a bit old for this part). She is cute, sassy, smart and fun, reminiscent of Lindsay Lohan in “Mean Girls” (before she was ruined by some of the same casual values portrayed in this film). Critics have almost universally praised the film for its high quality of acting, its humorous banter full of literary allusions, and its funny situations as the virginal Olive pretends to have sex. In the most memorable scene, Olive and Brandon stagger into a house party, feigning drunkenness, and ask for a bedroom where they can “finish what we started” in the car (wink wink). Partygoers gather around the closed door to listen as the two jump on the bed, pound on the wall, moan and shout while they pretend to have sex. (He’s gay, remember, and she’s a virgin, so neither of them has any experience in “lemon-squeezing,” as Brandon so delicately puts it.) A movie hasn’t been this much fun since Harry met Sally.
So why don’t I find this film as funny as other reviewers do? I think they are blinded by the age of the actors. Emma Stone and Dan Byrd (Olive and Brandon) are both in their mid-twenties. They’re adults. It’s easy to forget in this scene that they are portraying children. But if 16-year-old Dakota Fanning were playing 16-year-old Olive, I think audiences would have a completely different reaction to the film.
My biggest beef with “Easy A” is that it simply looks too easy. Olive ruins her reputation with a long list of pretend liaisons, and then restores it overnight, just by telling the boy of her dreams that it was all made up. But as any real girl will tell you, it ain’t that easy when you’re easy. If we learn anything from “The Scarlet Letter,” it is that reputations are easily tarnished, but painfully restored. There is no such thing as an easy A.

The Town

“The Town,” directed by Ben Affleck. Warner Brothers, 2010, 125 minutes.
Reviewed by Jo Ann Skousen
“The Town” tells the story of four childhood friends who have grown up to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Unfortunately, those footsteps have led in most cases to prison or death. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, we are told, “Bank robbery is passed down from fathers to sons like a family business.”
The film opens in the middle of a well organized bank heist. The robbers, dressed in Hallowe’en masks and toting AK-47s, sail through the bank with speed and confidence, disabling cell phones and computers as they head for the vault, where they coolly check for dye tags and take only the clean stuff. When one quick-thinking employee sets off the silent alarm, they decide to take the pretty young bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), as a hostage.
Most of the gang members are typical thugs, but Doug (Ben Affleck) is the robber with the heart of gold who wants to break away but can’t leave his friends. After they let Claire go (unharmed), Doug decides to track her down, ostensibly to find out what she might have told the FBI, but also to see how she’s coping with the ordeal. He ends up falling for this pretty girl from the other side of town, despite the fact that he is already in a relationship with a local girl (Blake Lively), the sister of his best friend and partner, Jim (Jeremy Renner). Claire represents the life Doug might have had if he hadn’t grown up in the projects of Boston. He is torn between loyalty to his pals and a desire for a different life.
The film has plenty of excitement, with a thrilling car chase down narrow Boston alley ways, and a shootout at Fenway Park. The robbers are cool, their plans are smart, and one of them has an itchy trigger finger that can get them all the death penalty if his bullets hit home. We especially feel sympathy for Doug, a good guy growing up in a bad situation.
The film doesn’t praise or glorify crime so much as it attempts to explain it. Life doesn’t provide white picket fences for kids in the Projects. Parents often end up dead or in prison, or they just walk away. Children learn to keep their eyes open and their mouths shut. They create their own code of right and wrong, with loyalty to friends at the top of the list.
The relationship between Doug and Jim, whose family took Doug in when his father went to prison, is best portrayed when Doug comes to Jim with a special request. Angry at some hoodlums who have been hassling Claire, Doug says to him, “I gotta ask ya to do something. I can’t tell ya why. We gotta hurt somebody.” Jim replies without question, “Let’s go.”
What happened in Charlestown? Why is it such a bastion of bank robbers and auto thieves? The film offers several reasons. As the FBI agents begin to close in on the robbers, Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm) comments dryly, “We won’t get 24-hour surveillance unless one of these guys converts to Islam,” suggesting that Homeland Security diverts funds away from hometown security. But it’s more than that. In another telling scene, when the gang has outrun several police cars and crossed the bridge from Boston to Charlestown, they suddenly come eye to eye with a local policeman. He stares at them, and they stare at him. They’re caught. Then the cop deliberately turns his head and looks the other way. It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys when they all grow up together.
Despite all this, or maybe because of it, the film is more than a typical bank heist flick; it is Ben Affleck’s love letter to a town he adores. He grew up in Boston’s neighborhood, and he knows her seedy side as well as her beauty. He knows her accents and her moods, and he knows how to charm her into giving him exactly what he wants. Affleck’s acting career has had its ups and downs, but Boston is clearly his lucky charm. He earned an Oscar (with Matt Damon) for the screenplay of “Good Will Hunting” (1997), set in Cambridge, where the two actors grew up. His directorial debut, “Gone, Baby, Gone” (2007), also set in Boston’s seedy district, earned both critical accolades and box office success. “The Town” makes it a hat trick. Affleck is clearly back on top.