Saturday, September 25, 2010

Campy Dialogue, Still Timely Message: Wall Street Illustrates The Consequences Of Capitalism

The Good: Great acting, Interesting setting, Decent direction, Great DVD presentation, Engaging plot
The Bad: Some very campy dialogue, Somewhat predictable plot progression.
The Basics: Generally, Oliver Stone's indictment of the mindset of day traders and the ridiculously rich survives the test of time with Wall Street!

As audiences flock to the theaters to see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (click here for my review!), I decided it was a good time for me to rewatch the original Wall Street. I had seen Wall Street back when I was in middle school and the truth is, I never thought about watching it again until I saw the movie posters for the sequel. It was not that Wall Street is bad, but it was not as memorable as many other movies I've seen or even that Oliver Stone has directed. Upon picking up and watching Wall Street on DVD in the new "20th Anniversary" two-disc set, I found myself underwhelmed by the film that many seem to hold up as one of the greats.

This is not to say that Wall Street is bad. But it certainly is dated. In fact, the reliance on jargon and the dated elements - design, filming, social attitudes - make the film an unfortunate jumble. To wit, while seeing the styles of the 1980s in interior design and the computer screens around the offices in the stockbroker scenes lends Wall Street a great sense of authenticity for the time. But then, in those same scenes when Bud Fox and his coworker Marvin are talking to one another and on the phone, the script is so loaded with jargon that is specific, over-the-top and unfathomable from context that it alienates the audience. In other words, while Oliver Stone and co-writer Stanley Weiser may have gotten the sound of stockbrokers in the 1980s down perfectly, the niche is so small that the audience is not likely to appreciate the time spent with characters bandying back and forth with lines that they cannot comprehend.

That said, outside the timely aspect of Wall Street and the dated portions that clearly capture 1985 and the sense of the economy and social mores in relation to investments, labor and ethics, the film actually illustrates a timeless tale of the seduction of a young stock broker into the world of high finance. There is a Faustian sense to the movie and Wall Street uses its setting well to explore a pretty timeless tale of the corruption of a brilliant young mind.

Bud Fox is a stockbroker working in a big firm in New York City in 1985, trying to land his big break investing for others by cold calling through a phone list. Each day, he calls Gordon Gekko and is blocked by Gekko's secretary. Determined, on Gekko's birthday, he arrives at Gordon's office with a gift and is granted five minutes of the investor's time. As the meeting begins to illustrate Gekko's disinterest in Fox and the few tips he has, Bud Fox reveals to Gekko that Blue Star Airlines is going to get a favorable ruling from the FAA, which will likely launch the stock and allow the airline to truly invest in expansion. Gekko explores the option, invests and begins to use Bud Fox as part of his investment team.

With a million dollars to invest, Bud Fox begins to invest to make Gordon Gekko and himself a lot of money (and strategically lose money). To keep ahead of the competition, Gekko has Fox spying on other businessmen, like Sir Larry Wildman, to get to sweet investments before Wildman can make them. As Bud Fox becomes more successful, Gekko provides him with perks like prostitutes and an ex-girlfriend Darien. The success alienates Fox from his union father, at Blue Star, and when Gordon Gekko looks to liquidate Blue Star, Bud Fox has to make a difficult choice about what is important to him.

There is a reason Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was made and that, quite simply, comes down to Gordon Gekko. The character is so delightfully bad that it was a well that went undertapped in Wall Street. Because Wall Street focuses so much on Bud Fox and his relentless pursuit of Gordon Gekko and the high life, Gekko's own character and life outside his financial dealings are seldom explored. Wall Street has a great dramatic villain in Gordon Gekko and the desire to revisit such a character makes perfect sense to me.

Despite the intrigue that surrounds a character who is almost inhuman like Gordon Gekko, Wall Street truly is Bud Fox's film. Wall Street chronicles his seduction, his interest and his motivations more than those of Gordon Gekko. Indeed, Gekko's goal is to simply make money and maintain, which is hardly interesting in a cinematic sense. But Bud Fox is truly about changing his entire life and lifestyle and an interesting argument could be made about who is using who more in Wall Street. After all, Gordon Gekko does not seek out Bud Fox; he is utterly disinterested in Fox until Fox uses his insider information to profit Gekko. But Fox needs Gekko to make his own dreams come true and the relentless pursuit of the lifestyle Gordon lives is pretty disheartening - at least for anticapitalists.

Wall Street succeeds, then, more on the strength of the performances and the classic themes than on the characters or even the use of the setting. Martin Sheen, for example, gives a wonderful supporting performance as Bud Fox's father. For me, it was delightful to see Sheen and Douglas on screen together - I had just rewatched The American President a few days prior! The scene Douglas and Martin Sheen share is loaded with great body language performances and seeing the two acting titans playing opposite characters brings out the best in both. Saul Rubinek and Daryl Hannah also provide decent supporting roles and, as a fan of Boston Legal, it was delightful to see a young James Spader in a supporting role as a lawyer friend of Bud Fox. In fact, the truncated storyline with his character could have used a little more fleshing out as opposed to the romance between Darien and Bud.

Michael Douglas won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gordon Gekko and this set off a long string of roles for Douglas where he plays characters who are either morally ambiguous or outright evil. Douglas has a great intensity to him and while in the role of Gordon Gekko he spits some of his most venomous lines with such a heavy amount of jargon as to make them almost incomprehensible, he sells the role on sheer charisma and force of character. He delivers Gekko's lines with an uncompromising quality that is absolutely convincing. Gekko is one of Michael Douglas's roles where we stop seeing Douglas and we only see Gekko.

Almost as good, believe it or not, is the role of Bud Fox for Charlie Sheen. While some might argue that a workaholic playboy is hardly a stretch for Charlie Sheen, Sheen has a steely set to his eyes in many of the scenes that make it plausible that he could have gotten to his starting position using hard work, dedication and charisma. At the same time, despite not being fleshed out with a set of dreams of his own (Bud Fox enables Darien some), the goals he does have seem to make him predisposed toward the type of seduction Gordon Gekko represents. Sheen actually plays perfectly for those vulnerabilities. There are moments Sheen brings weakness into the eyes and shoulder set of Bud Fox that make his failings entirely realistic.

On DVD, Wall Street comes with a pretty impressive (especially for this type drama) two-disc special edition. Alongside the primary film, there is a commentary track which notes the context of the film, as well as shooting issues and is enjoyable for fans of Oliver Stone's works. The second disc has featurettes, deleted scenes and the movie's original trailers. There are a few hours of entertainment and education which will delight fans.

But ultimately, Wall Street is just a classic tale put in a relatively new setting and those who despise greed and corruption will likely squirm through more of the movie than they will enjoy.

For other dramatic films, please check out my reviews of:
Shutter Island
Strawberry And Chocolate
The Spitfire Grill


For other film reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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