Money Never Sleeps, and Oliver Stone Never Stops Looking for the Butler

There is a good reason why sequels tend not to be good as the original.  If there is a sequel, the original movie was probably either a commercial success or it achieved a devoted following.  In either event, the original is more-likely than than the average movie to be considered “good” (though there is obviously no guarantee).  The original movie is probably the result of someone, or several people, having had a great idea, once.

This great idea was usually had just once.  In the mode, sequels are made to cash in on the strength of the original movie.  I think the strategy for filming most sequels is something like this: “Uh, do whatever it is we did that worked the first time, again.  No–Do more of it this time, if you can think of a way to do that.”  This isn’t an idea.  It’s usually a bad sign when the sequel seems to attempt to “conjure” the first movie, as if capturing the spirit of the original is an arcane secret even to the people who made that movie.

From the odd, hyper-stylized use of infographics, the at times asinine visual metaphors and the weird metaphysical guilt imposed on Wall Street executives for everything from suicides of people they barely knew to killing fusion power, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps tries to tell those stories about the human condition through the interrogation of American mythology that characterizes Oliver Stone‘s work at its best; instead what we get is that muddled, confessional, self-lacerating despair that constitutes Stone’s work at its worst.

The Liberal Ironist isn’t a snob.  He isn’t a purist.  He liked Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, another sequel to a movie from the 1980s that many people unfairly but humorously claimed was “ruined” by Shia LeBeouf.  The present movie wasn’t ruined by anyone (both Oliver Stone’s and writer Stephen Schiff’s considerable attempts notwithstanding); it was unnecessary.  Surprisingly, there isn’t really any message.  You could miss that point because of all the philosophizing by metaphor (which the Liberal Ironist likes), but it doesn’t sum to anything (which perhaps he should like, but doesn’t).

Gordon Gekko, 7 years out of prison in 2008 and having recently published a book that wonders aloud what has become of Wall Street, says “The problem is systemic.”  He mocks the sophisticated arbitrage algorithms that the hedge funds use to turn larger profits.  Interesting, I thought, could the movie be about this? Is Stone presenting one of those stories about the perils to one’s soul inherent in the system, like in Platoon or Nixon?  Will he make a movie about burned egos overplaying their hand in a dangerous World, like W.?  I mean, obviously Gordon Gekko is really just thinking of his way to get back on top of the finance game and needs the seed money that a tell-all book panning Wall Street could provide, but maybe the movie will address the fascinating paradox of all those math whizzes creating a financial system in which they could no longer calculate their own level of risk, as discussed in Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson’s book The Quants.  The immediate culprit, moreso than quarterly profit-obsessed CEOs or the government policy of extremely low-interest rates (also factors Gekko decries), is hedge funds’ naiveté in their use of advanced mathematics to trade stock, which became so common it actually reduced their ability to comprehend and anticipate financial conditions.

No.  This interesting premise doesn’t transcend this scene.  Josh Brolin crashed the economy.  He also single-handedly stops fusion power, by the way.

Stone, who thought the best way to depict September 11th in film was to make a disaster movie about the collapse of the Twin Towers, here seeks to build a drama around the way rumors can stoke fear of a stock.  Whereas the panic surrounding the collapse of Bear Stearns could easily have been a spontaneous, convulsive reaction to speculation about the viability of the firm’s assets, its fictionalized stand-in, Keller Zabel, is brought down by an instrumental rumor spread by Brolin, a hedge fund manager for the bank Churchill Schwartz.

OK, I want to conduct a brief experiment.  I’ve heard that as along as the first and last letters in a word are where they belong, people can read an anagram at normal speed.  Let’s see if you can read which large, influential bank which had invested heavily in hedge funds, mortgages and collateralized debt obligations and whose former Chairman and CEO became Secretary of the Treasury Churchill Schwartz is supposed to be:

Gdmaoln Schas.

Gordon Gekko and Brolin’s Bretton James (or James Bretton?) each take a turn at the heavy, but the movie is weirdly-unable to make these reptilian investment bankers look like the bad guys.  The Liberal Ironist is not the Capitalist Fundamentalist, but he thought these characters had understandable motives and pursued what they wanted within reasonable bounds.  (They aren’t at fault for the suicides dramatically attributed to them, which certainly helps.)  Now, it is true that Gordon Gekko eventually steals $100 million from his daughter and only family, but even that seems more like protecting his property: Gekko’s daughter agreed to hold the money for him in a Swiss bank account while he was in prison.  When her brother killed himself (while Gordon was serving an 8-year prison sentence), she reneged, and she resolves to donate all of it to fusion power research upon withdrawal.  I’d be pretty mad at my daughter; in a sense Gordon’s massive theft is graceful.  After taking the money Gekko turns about $1.1 billion out of it before Christmas 2008.  Suddenly, fusion power really doesn’t look like much of an investment.

The most-frustrating thing about the movie is the character that’s supposed to be its “moral center”–Winnie Gekko, Gordon’s daughter and LeBeouf’s fiancée.  She becomes angry when LeBeouf watches her father on the news plugging his new book, she cannot forgive her father because he was in jail when her brother killed himself (though she always visited him in jail before that), and she leaves LeBeouf–not because he played a role in her loss of the money, but because he had tried to help Gordon reconcile with her without her knowledge.  “You’re like him!” she cries, when that’s self-evidently false.  She is intended as the moral center of the movie, but Winnie Gekko is a shrill, idiosyncratic, incoherent mess.  Actually, wait…she is the moral center of this movie.

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