Sunday, 3 October 2010
Movie Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Gordon Gecko, played by Michael Douglas, the wall street deal maker, the "greed is good" corporate raider, is back, 23 years later after the original film, after 8 years in jail, a little humbler, a little wiser but still oh so on his game. On the one hand, you hate Gecko. He represents the gluttony of big business where the little guy is crushed like an ant underfoot. On the other hand, you admire him. He exudes confidence, knowledge, power; this is a man who knows how to play the game and win.
It is odd to read the history of the choice of Michael Douglas for the part. For the original movie, two other actors were first picks including Warren Beatty (picked by the studio) and Richard Gere (picked by the director) however neither of these choices panned out. Douglas was actually the third choice but others in Hollywood advised Oliver Stone, the director against going with Douglas. Nevertheless, the results were fantastic. Michael Douglas managed to bring to the character a certain charisma and that is the telling point of Gordon Gecko. You may not like him; you may even hate him but you can't take your eyes off of him. He is the centre of the room. Michael Douglas won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1987.
The original movie's plot had Gecko being caught in insider trading. What exactly is this? Princeton University's WordNet defines it as:
buying or selling corporate stock by a corporate officer or other insider on the basis of information that has not been made public and is supposed to remain confidential
This is illegal. Everybody must play by the same rules and those rules dictate that everybody must do business with public knowledge. You can't conduct your business based on secret, inside information as this gives you an unfair advantage over everybody else.
As an aside, probably a very notable one case most people may have heard about due to the celebrity of the person in question is that of Martha Stewart who was convicted in 2001 of just that, insider trading. What is so incredibly funny about this is that Martha's "take" in this transaction amounted to something in the neighbourhood of $45,000. She was finally convicted in 2004; spent 5 months in jail; had to wear an electronic ankle bracelet for 5 months and endured a 2 year period of supervised release. She was barred from serving on any corporate board for 5 years and in 2008 was denied entry into England because she was and still is a convicted felon. All this for $45,000. The woman is an industry unto herself with a net worth of over $600 million.
This sequel opens with Gordon Gecko being released from prison after an eight year sentence having been convicted of insider trading. He is coming out to a slightly different world, a world which is in the midst of the financial meltdown caused by the subprime mortgage fiasco in the United States and which will spread into the global calamity we now all know so well.
Gordon is starting at the bottom and his first means of making a few bucks is to publish a book he wrote while incarcerated called "Greed is Good". From there the story links Gordon back to the world he once lived in making that connection through a young trader who is about to marry Gecko's only daughter. The sentimental side of the story has Gecko attempting to re-unite with his daughter and unlike the first film, we have the softer side of the supposedly evil Gecko. He claims to have realized in prison that while "the game" is good, at the end of the day you really only have family. Of course, by the end of the film with Gecko managing to get back to the top, I think he just may pull off the greatest coup by ending up with both: winning the game and having his family. I certainly wouldn't put it past him; the man is a player.
The original Wall Street: an inspiration to a generation
Both the director Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas have stated over the years how people have said that based on the film, they decided to go into finance, whether it being a trader, stock broker or what not. The film showed them a world of finance that captured their imagination and inspired them to have a go at it in this world. I return to my opening paragraph. There is something about big business, "the deal", the playing the game which can be very attractive. While you could say it's "business", I'm certain a psychiatrist would certainly say that it is akin to gambling; maybe not quite so based on luck, but there certainly is a huge element of risk involved in placing your well researched "bets" in the market.
Will this sequel to the original movie also inspire a generation? Hard to say but Mr. Stone has attempted to capture a bit of the idiocy that was the greatest financial meltdown since the crash of 1929.
The Subprime Mortgage Fiasco
Offer somebody a home at no money down; give them a reduced interest at first, then keep jacking up the rate until they can't afford to pay. Actually, a closer examination of the original transaction clearly shows that the purchaser really couldn't afford the home in the first place and never should have been allowed to sign the contract. It was almost guaranteed that they would eventually default.
On paper, concentrating merely on the profit with no regard for the risk of loss, all this looked terrific. In reality, you have an unsustainable situation whereby sooner or later, people default on their homes and the bank ends up repossessing the property which it can't sell. The sale of a house for $400 thousand may end up being worth less than $100 thousand. And like a house of cards, the whole precarious structure came crashing down all around us.
People got greedy just as plain and simple as that. The rule always was and still is: over-estimate your expenses and under-estimate your income. If you spend more than you make, sooner or later the piper will come a-calling. However, what is so surprising is to see this on such a grand scale; to see stupidity and greed actually institutionalized. Those who ran the game were so far removed from the actual dealings themselves; they had no idea of the precariousness of the financial transactions being set up with these dubious mortgages.
It is interesting to note how we equate greed to somebody stealing from the till; a hundred bucks, a thousand bucks. You watch a film like this and you're reminded that there are people out there who fit the bill of greedy but the amounts of money are just absolutely staggering. We, the little people, the average Joe or Josephine in the street have no idea of the wealth which exists in the world only to a few select people on this planet.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the original 1987 film Wall Street a rating of 77% but only gave this sequel 56%. Keep in mind that anything under 60% is not considered "fresh" and is of dubious quality. I would definitely attribute this lower rating to the sappy... okay, warm fuzzy subplot about Gecko's family and the marriage of her daughter. I guess the critics preferred the cold prickly of the first film. Of course, Oliver and company could have spent more time going into more detail about everything that happened during the financial meltdown but maybe that would be best served by a documentary.
My advice: If you enjoyed the 1987 original, you have to go see this one. Maybe not quite at the same level, but it was certainly enjoyable watching Douglas pour on the charm. He may have been the bad guy in the first film, but this time around he redeems himself and while more of an antihero than an outright hero, I have to admit that I wanted him to win in the end.
Rotten Tomatoes: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: 56%
Wikipedia: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (film 2010)
Rotten Tomatoes: Wall Street: 77%
Wikipedia: Wall Street (film 1987)
Princeton University, WordNet: insider trading
Wikipedia: Insider Trading