Hubris Never Sleeps – A Review of Wall Street 2

Date: October 4, 2010

What is the definition of insanity? Repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results – so goes one of the best lines of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps.

I loved the first movie. I probably loved the movie so much because at the time, I had just started my own career in finance. Perhaps not quite in the same league as Bud Fox as my involvement was only to walk to the London Stock Exchange trading floor every morning to deliver our clients’ trades. However, it did allow me to get a daily fix of the craziness of the trading floor and made me yearn for a career in the markets.

The first 30 minutes of Wall Street brilliantly captures the zeitgeist. The ambition of the young bucks in the market with their “churn ‘em and burn ‘em” approach, together with the stress and toil of working the phones trying to drum up business from all their cold calling, is truly exciting. It also captures the slide of our hero into the gravitational field of the suave and sexy insider, Gordon Gekko. We see Bud briefly wrestle with his conscience, before succumbing to the Gekko-endorsed greed. The plotline continues with a short period of success and conspicuous consumption, before the inevitable exposure, humiliation and imprisonment. Ultimately though, it’s a story of redemption for Bud  after he helps bring down Gekko and save his father’s airline.

Wall Street 2 starts well with an amusing scene where Gekko, upon release from jail, is reunited with his brick-sized 80’s  cell phone. We then skip forward to 2008, where Oliver Stone very cleverly uses the “Lipstick” building, the subsequently infamous site of Madoff’s operation, to set the scene. We meet Jake Moore and his colleagues at KZI, the doomed fictionalized version of Bear Stearns. There’s a brief period of revelry when Jake is given a 7 figure bonus, by his mentor and surrogate father figure, Lou Zabel. In the wonderful world that is movieland, Jake is about to propose to Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie.

We get the first whiff of trouble for KZI as rumors of their billions of dollars of toxic debt spread around the market. KZI’s stock price collapses and at the brink of failure there’s a meeting of all the banking heads and the Treasury Department. Here we meet Bretton James, CEO of Churchill Schwartz, the fictionalized amalgam of JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. James establishes himself as the villain by forcing Lou Zabel to accept a lowball bid for KZI which leads to Lou’s later suicide.

Trying to explain what caused the market turmoil to the movie going public was always going to be difficult. CDO, CDS and MBS is just alphabet soup to most of us. The problem is explained very cleverly in a speech by Gekko, where he amusingly chastises the greed of everyone from his barman to his middle-class neighbor and warns that leverage will bring doom to everyone. There’s no mention of the crazed lending policies though, which is surprising.  Throughout the film we do get several interesting history lessons about the nature of investment bubbles and our inability to learn from them, hence the line about insanity that I quote above. We also get the best exchange of the movie when Jake asks billionaire Bretton James how much money is enough. The snearing reply of “more” is fantastic and perhaps speaks to the forces that drove the investment world to the brink.

I expected all of this to be the setup for Stone to release the moral outrage and cinematic evisceration of the banking giants that many feel is deserved. However, the movie quickly turns into a simple human tale of greed, revenge and love with a slightly sickly attempt at a Hollywood ending. Where were the scenes capturing the greed and blatant disregard for everything (except the pursuit of 7 and 8 figure bonuses)?

I had been so excited by the prospect of a reprise of Wall Street and Gordon Gekko. Who better than Stone to blow the lid off the sins of the past decade?

Perhaps the title should have started the alarm bells ringing – Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. Really? Is that the best you’ve got? It’s a line from Gekko to Bud Fox in the first movie, but “Greed Never Sleeps” or even “Hubris Never Sleeps” would surely have been more appropriate to the subject matter. I guess we’re going to have to wait for the upcoming Charles Ferguson documentary “Inside Job” to see this story handled with more bite.

Ultimately, Wall Street 2 is a decent yarn, but a huge missed opportunity.

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