by Linda Holmes
The latest in the Summer Of '80s Movies series is 1987's Wall Street*, which won Michael Douglas an Oscar and guaranteed that "greed is good" would live on in our grab-bag of overused cultural cliches forevermore. It was also a major step in the rise of Oliver Stone, who had won an Oscar for Best Director the year before (for Platoon) and would, in the next few years, make films including Born On The Fourth Of July, The Doors, Nixon, and -- of course -- JFK.
And what's shocking, seeing Wall Street 22 years after its release, is how aggressively bad it is.
Huge cell phones, Spader problems, unlikely speeches, and lots more, after the jump...
Yes, there is a kind of overclocked power in Douglas' performance as Gordon Gekko, and Stone's heavy-handed vision of Gekko as half-man, half-reptile is fully realized, to the point where seeing his tongue flick out and catch an insect would not be a surprise. In fact, "heavy-handed" seems inadequate, to the point where one wishes there were such a word as "lunk-handed."
But the rest of the cast is utterly lost. Charlie Sheen plays young Bud Fox as, depending on the moment, either a babe in the woods entranced by Gekko's power and fundamentally good or a thoroughly corrupted man who has fallen victim to his own lust for money. Obviously, characters can contain multitudes, but Sheen careens wildly between the two extremes, as if he's driving a car that has only first gear and, let's say, fifteenth.
It gets worse from there. It's not clear why anyone felt that the character played by Daryl Hannah, a decorator who is so sophisticated and upscale that she covers Bud's walls in what appears to be rubberized brick facade (!), even needed to be in the movie. Perhaps the need for a sex scene performed in silhouette as gauzy blue curtains billow in the background was deemed particularly acute. Hannah does nothing, seems totally confused, and doesn't seem to know whether her character actually cares about Bud or not.
And poor James Spader! Granted, he had been in Mannequin and Less Than Zero right before this, but that's no excuse for putting him in Old Navy Lady glasses and giving him this preppy hair. In the role of Bud's pal, he is actually forced to recite the line, "And what's in it for moi?" Yes, he says "moi." (He also calls Molly Ringwald "nada" in Pretty In Pink, so perhaps he was simply in the multilingual cheesewad portion of his career.)
More than anything, though, the movie is sunk by the script, which -- I swear this is true -- features Charlie Sheen wandering out onto a balcony during a moment of moral crisis, looking out over the city of New York, and saying, "Who am I?" Now, I understand that not all writers cleave faithfully to the "show, don't tell" approach, but if you do not have faith that your script and your actor can convey the idea of an identity crisis without actually showing the guy saying to no one, "Who am I?", then you need to reconsider how your story is structured.
Similarly, people speak in ways that make utterly no sense. Hal Holbrook shows up as the old-school ethical man at Bud's Wall Street firm, who strolls into the movie and makes a speech right off in which he discusses Roosevelt, the gold standard, and "sticking to the fundamentals." I'm confident that the words "Why, in my day" were cut for time. He spends the entire movie spouting these little fortune-cookie nuggets of quasi-wisdom to Bud, about how he should enjoy his success while it lasts (dramatic pause) because it never does. Or how a man looks into the abyss and blah blah blah NO ONE TALKS THIS WAY, OLIVER STONE. There are more nuanced portrayals of well-intentioned but ineffectual managers in Airplane!.
Or consider Gekko's big speech, in which he explains to Bud how evil he is, how little he contributes to society, and how all the little guys are too dumb to realize how he's robbing them blind, ha ha ha!
Certainly, there are guys who have the self-awareness to tell you right out that they don't have a lot of ethical qualms about anything. But nobody gazes out his giant windows onto the city below and delivers a lecture in which he describes himself exactly as he would be described by the writer of a screenplay in which he is the villain: I produce nothing! I am worthless to the economy! I am just moving wealth around! I have no purpose and make no contribution, and yet I have all the good people's money, mwah-hah-hah!
Of course, this movie was made during Our National Moment Of Reflection On The Morality Of Wall Street Part One, and we are now in the middle of ONMOROTMOWS Part Two. Has anything changed?
The cell phones sure have. Both Gekko and Bud are seen on the giant, dictionary-sized cell phones that used to be symbols of being incredibly rich. At one particularly eye-popping moment, Gekko stands on the beach with his Webster's Third Edition Phone and starts telling Bud how beautiful the sunrise is, and he gets very intense and whispery, and he starts in with the "I'm going to make you rich, Bud Fox," and for a moment, it sounds like an obscene phone call. Which perhaps is the point, to draw a parallel between kinds of seduction, but if so, it should have been done with a little less camp and heavy breathing, because really, it's just silly.
The phones underscore the real reason I suspect the film ages so badly -- what once was shocking simply isn't anymore, and wasn't at the time as much as it believed itself to be. That there will always be a rich guy trying to make a lot of money and potentially putting the screws to little guys is not an idea that was first exposed by Oliver Stone in 1987. And the farther we get from the days when cell phones looked like bricks, the farther we get from the days when any young Wall Street guy could conceivably claim to be shocked at the world of wealth into which Gekko escorts Bud.
Perhaps the punch of the film at the time was its calling out of this specific kind of wealth-chasing -- perhaps the fact that it had a point to make concealed the weaknesses in the script and the acting, both of which are enormously problematic.
We're about to find out how well all this translates into the era of smaller phones: Stone is working on the sequel. Douglas will be back, and he will reportedly be joined by Shia LeBeouf and, according to some reports, possibly Josh Brolin.
*I cannot tell a lie. Technically, this was shown not as part of the AFI "Totally Awesome 3" series that the rest of these movies are part of, but during the theater's Michael Douglas retrospective. Still, what movie is more '80s than Wall Street? If you have Netflix, incidentally, Wall Street is available for live streaming.