Shiny Shelf

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

By Jonn Elledge on 26 October 2010

Michael Lewis intended ‘Liar’s Poker’, his seminal 1989 book on his career as a bond trader, to be an exposé. He was thus horrified to watch the next generation of ambitious college graduates treat it as a how-to guide.

The original ‘Wall Street’ had much the same problem. Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko isn’t the hero; he’s not even the anti-hero. He’s the villain, pure and simple, leading better men astray and ending up locked up for his trouble. Yet “Greed is good” became not a warning about the dangers of avarice but a City motto, and our cultural memory of the movie focuses not on his corruption but on his funky red braces and breeze block phone.

No one is going to think that ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ is a
paean to greed. They’re not likely to think it’s a cautionary tale
either, mind. In fact, if anyone can tell me what the bloody hell it
is about, I’d be glad to know.

Here’s what happens. Gecko gets out of prison in 2001, and spends
seven years warning of the tsunami about to hit the market. In 2008
he’s approached by pleasant young trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf, who looks disarmingly like a small boy), who specialises in renewable energy funding and who wants to marry Gecko’s daughter (Carey Mulligan). She’s nice and liberal (and, oddly, also looks like a small boy)  and so hates Gecko’s guts.

Using that link he starts to rebuild his family and becomes instrumental in helping Moore to fund some excitingly sci-fi-ish fusion experiments which will provide infinite energy. Except that it turns out Gecko isn’t reformed at all and actually, you know what? I’m depressing myself just typing all this out so I’m going to stop.

Problem number one. The film is so lacking in subtlety that it’s like being smashed in the face with a brick while someone shouts, “THIS IS WHAT WE’RE TRYING TO SAY”. When the markets start to go down, it’s illustrated by a downward tracking shot and a line of falling dominos.

When Moore makes a questionable decision, a ghostly image of his mentor appears, glares disapprovingly at him, and then vanishes without saying a word. This lasts two seconds, is never commented on and never happens again. Wow. Deep.

Problem number two is that, despite this pitch for moral clarity, it’s not remotely clear what the film as a whole trying to say at all. ”You’re exactly like Gecko” people keep telling Moore. Except that he’s kind and generous and wants to save the world and, actually, how is he like him, exactly? At the end, after the film has gone to such lengths to show us that Gecko is not so much morally questionable as a cackling super villain, he gives a little speech on the importance of love, and Mulligan and LaBoufe embrace. I mean, what the f–?

Perhaps all these problems stem from the fact that what happened to the markets in 2008 was, contrary to popular belief, not really a morality tale at all. The crash wasn’t the result of greedy bankers stuffing their pants with money and laughing (at least, not directly).

Most people in the City thought they were doing good work: a lot of apparently good decisions, designed to help poor people get houses and spread risk, combined to make one catastrophically awful result.

There’s no villain there. There are utter, utter arses,  paying themselves ludicrous amounts of money, but there’s no one you can point your finger at and say, “He’s to blame”. Nor, come to that, are there any heroes. There’s no narrative, no conspiracy, no moral. There are just a lot of people pushing papers at each other, who without ever quite meaning it, somehow managed to destroy the world.

That doesn’t make a great movie. So instead we get ‘Wall Street 2′, which has a hero and a villain and tells us, in case we misunderstood the first movie, that greed is now bad.  It tells us, in other words, absolutely nothing.

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By Jonn Elledge

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