Money's Dreamless Sleep

Suzanne Fields

10/1/2010 12:01:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Conservatives who love to hate moviemaker Oliver Stone, who has never found a particular reason to love America, won't find enough venom to abet their passion against him for his latest movie, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

He has gone soft, mushy and sentimental. On economic theory, he's Paul Krugman on valium. The camera work is great, the scenes of New York are sensational, but the moral hazard in this movie is more about being a bad daddy than a greedy capitalist. Social conservatives won't believe an extraordinary scene where "life" is depicted on a video screen, as an unborn baby kicking and swimming in a mother's womb.

Several reviewers have compared the role of Gordon Gekko, which Michael Douglas reprises from the first "Wall Street," to Satan in "Paradise Lost," the seductive fallen angel that the romantic poets admired in spite of his evil. But Gekko is not even Mammon in this version. He shows little of the unquenchable nastiness that two decades ago gave a whole generation a phrase to groove on: "Greed is good."

After he won the Academy Award for the earlier movie, drunken kids in business school came up to tell him how much they loved the character he played. He was shocked that he had created a role model to imitate rather than a villain to hiss.

"You're the man," they told him. "They didn't learn a thing," he says. Well, maybe not. But the kids have changed, as Gekko himself observes in the new movie: "This is the Ninja generation -- no income, no jobs, no assets."

If Stone had followed up on the potential in that line, he might have invented a film with a dramatic message worth debating. But such dialogue is stillborn. There are lots of cameo roles for rich celebrity types like Donald Trump, but no unemployed workers make the scene. No one talks about the slow-growth, high-deficit economy at the high society fund-raisers where a ticket costs $10,000 a pop.

The bailouts that began under George W. Bush and continued under Barack Obama reach Wall Street on a high-speed congressional shuttle from Washington without a murmur of criticism from Oliver Stone.

"I don't know how you show a credit default swap on the screen," he told The New York Times in defense of his failure. "The idea that the entire system was dependent on a credit bubble that could pop overnight -- that is really hard to convey on screen." Stone, so easily taken in by the conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination and the likes of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, seems to have lost his talent for invention in the face of the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008, which he says prompted him to make this film. Inventiveness can do wonders on screen when you believe in the story.

It's impossible to psychoanalyze Oliver Stone, but something stole both his political nerve and aesthetic sense. Michael Douglas learned lines written on the set, and he portrays a wondrously reptilian character during most of the film, but the script has no edge, no profound insight, no powerful drama, no serious debate. Gordon Gekko is an empty prophet who offers little beyond the glib notion that economic failures repeat themselves because "we like being lied to." Merely sound, without fury.

It's difficult, however, not to appreciate the unintended poignancy that pervades the movie as the leading character describes money several times as a "cancer" spreading through Wall Street. Who cannot wince, knowing that Douglas is suffering from throat cancer, when his character says that "money is not the prime asset in life, time is."

But movies aren't made by off-camera experiences, and the line rings hollow in the voice of the fictional character. So does the sappy ending.

No one expected Oliver Stone to produce a movie about tea parties and the anger of Americans over the way taxpayer money has been squandered to bail out the irresponsibly rich on the real Wall Street. But ending the movie with Gekko, the villain of Wall Street, cynically using the greenbacks he has made through nefarious means to support an experimental green energy lab that turns sea water into fuel, gives ironic meaning to "Money Never Sleeps." The director can't distinguish between the nightmare that has gripped the country and his own fanciful dreams.