Profit without honor

Oliver Stone’s market is mixed
By OWEN GLIEBERMAN  |  August 10, 2006

Michael Douglas in Wall Street
Wall Street should have been the film that gave the yuppies their due, the one that put you in touch with the thrill of capitalism. After all, we’ve heard enough about these young professional brats – about their single-mindedness, their greed, their quest for the ultimate designer ice cream. Why not a movie that got inside their ambitions, that let us taste the temptation of life in the upwardly mobile lane? But no, Oliver Stone has come to Wall Street not to sympathize with the new young rich but to chastise them. He isn’t off-putting about it, and for all his peachiness he can still be an invigorating director. Scene for scene, Wall Street zings; it’s sharp, engrossing hokum. But the way Stone has conceived the movie, you have no choice but to watch the hero’s descent into high-rollerdom and quietly shake your head in disapproval. Stone has more in common with the brokers than he knows. He doesn’t just leave you with a predictable, money-isn’t-everything message. He sells it – for two hours.

It’s a fast two hours. I don’t think I looked at my watch once, and these days that’ close to praise. Stone, whose father was a broker for 50 years (the movie is dedicated to him), captures the adrenaline rush of trading. He understands how the liquidity of the stock market makes it a high-finance Vegas. In an early scene, we watch Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), the green, ambitious young broker, seated at his computer in the office he shares with about 9 other brokers – some of them young, like the tall, high-powered geek Lynch (James Karen), some of them veterans who don’t know why they’re there anymore. Basically, they’re hawking is in constant flux, and the stakes are outrageously high. Human energy means more in this office than int even did to a traveling salesman. Here the energy is poured into a kind of ongoing mental gymnastics. Each broker must navigate a crazy quilt of tips, hunches, potential clients and dumb luck, and it’s enough to keep their heads spinning.

That goes for the audience, too. You’d love to be a broker yourself to keep up with all the jargon in this movie, and that, I think, is the way Stone and his co writer, Stanley Weiser, intended it. They’ve given some of the dealings a satirical, screwball spin, and though Stone could be accused of hyping the actual rhythm of trading (he seems to have transferred the frenetic rhythm of the stock-exchange floor to the brokerage offices), he wants this world to appear bright, artificial, abstracter than air – unreal. You can see why ambition is nurtured here; the very style of labor is geared to the escalation of possibilities. Wall Street, which opens in the bullish year of 1985, is about how Bud, an up-and-comer from a working-class background with his job, he finagles a five-minute meeting with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the multi-millionaire Fortune cover boy who’s become a legend as a corporate raider. Standing in his gold-doored palatial office, surrounded by computer terminals, Picassos, and the inevitable God’s-eye view of the financial district, Gekko is dashing, charismatic, ruthless – the yuppie Mephistopheles of Wall Street.

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