Saturday, February 6, 2010
Trailer Time: Greed Could Be Good
Self-Styled Siren recently asked her readers about cool and uncool movies and stars-- who or what do we love, even at the risk of public shame? A related question is, what counts as a good movie-- or a bad one? It's a question I like to explore with my Cinema 101/110 students every semester by contrasting two films that are generally put into either category: Citizen Kane and Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, for instance, or Rules of the Game and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Responses to these films might be shaped by perceived technical competence or lack thereof, box office popularity or cult status, critical acclaim or disdain, canonization or disavowal-- all those elements that shape questions of taste. But the question remains-- when we think of movies we love or hate, is there something inherently "good" or "bad" about them for us, that no amount of attempted rescuing or dismissal can ever quite eliminate?
All of this brings me to Wall Street, a film whose critical reputation seems to yo-yo depending on which moment in time one discovers it. Following on the heels of director Oliver Stone's Platoon, Wall Street did pretty well at the box office, won an Oscar for Michael Douglas, and got decent reviews. But my memory is that it was seen as a bit of a letdown for Stone after the cultural impact of Platoon-- critics also noted the simplistic Oedipal conflicts, the melodramatic tone, and the woodenness of Daryl Hannah. "Greed is good" entered into the lexicon (even if it did so stripped of the irony found in the scene where it's spoken), but the film's hyper-timely plot (it came out the winter after the stock market crash of 1987) and unapologetically broad tonal strokes meant that it got a bit lost in the rush of Stone's other Vietnam films (Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth, arguably JFK), his psychedelically violent fantasias (The Doors, Natural Born Killers), and his historical epics (Nixon, Alexander). It's become a cable staple, and a reference point for real-world discussions of economic irresponsibility, but as Stone's own profile has dimmed over the last decade, it didn't seem like it was talked about as much as a movie anymore.
Which is a shame, because I think it might be his most interesting film--it's the only one of his that gives me any pleasure. I love it, in fact, for all the reasons noted above as markers of critical disdain: its shamelessly operatic structure, its cartoonishly blunt look at father-son relationships (which is present in Platoon, too, and far more obnoxious there), its garish fetishizing of cars and homes and over-sized cell phones. Even Daryl Hannah's pointlessly arch line readings (I'll forever be haunted by the way she reads "I'd say Gordon is one of the most astute collectors out there" like a community theater Cruella DeVille) work, because they're framed by a world where everything is over-the-top, and everyone is straining to craft a larger-than-life public image. "Greed is good" is not only Gordon's motto-- it's the film's, whose beautiful people, energetic mobile framing and neon mise-en-scene mock and invert the easy moralisms of its screenplay (cinematographer Robert Richardson is Stone's Bud Fox, getting the sheen the director needs to make his larger points). "I never judged a man by the size of his wallet!," a very good Martin Sheen screams to his son Charlie, and we nod at his sage proletarian posturing; but you can almost imagine Oliver Stone giggling behind his viewfinder, thinking of another way for his camera to lust after Gordon Gekko's striped shirts and Cuban cigars.
Wall Street is the one time Stone gives in to his considerable talent for melodrama; he certainly doesn't put his desire for a political cinema aside (check out that title, after all), but it's forced to filter through rich blues and oranges and yellows that soak through his lens like red wine falling on Gordon's shag white carpet (see? It's so powerful it even makes you write like Edward Bulwer-Lytton-- and that's not an entirely bad thing). And best of all, he seems to have a sense of humor about it, and not the bleak, tries-so-hard-to-be-funny-that-it-begs-the-question humor of Natural Born Killers. Yes, there are the Big Serious Speeches and the showdown at the end in the rainy park (and Charlie Sheen's furrowed brow and constant grimacing are enough to make you forget that he would soon be hilarious in Major League, which was just two years away). But Stone must have caught a bug of gleeful enthusiasm from Michael Douglas, because every time Gordon Gekko is on the screen, the movie threatens to become high comedy (and you really wish it would). Douglas tears into the part with relish, nailing every line (it was a well-deserved Oscar), and his energy is what makes a lot of the film. But I also like the strange campiness of Sheen and Hannah simultaneously making pasta and closing business deals while opera plays in the background; or John C. McGinley's sly creepiness bouncing off of Hal Holbrook's dignified calm; or the line-readings of Terrence Stamp, whose deadpan masks an impishness that occasionally squeezes out; or the sheer perversity of casting James Spader as a lawyer struggling with his ethics. There's something big and lush and marvelously decadent about Wall Street, and I wish Stone had followed that impulse and tried to become Douglas Sirk, instead of working so hard to become a social commentator.
Twenty-three years later, Stone has finally offered a sequel, perhaps realizing that the recent financial meltdown offered him both creative opportunity and possible commercial salvation. The teaser trailer for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is at the top of the post. I'm not sure it works, although I love the metallic gray of the 20th-Century Fox logo, and the lovely grace note of the 1987 big cell phone (a good sign that the funny might still be hiding in Stone somewhere). Douglas looks old and haggard in the early shots, sleek and game in the later, even if I miss the Pat Riley grease of his 1987 hair. Shia LaBouef is both smart box office and an upgrade over Charlie Sheen (with his hunched shoulders, darting eyes and pliable face, it's somehow easier for me to imagine him as an ethically challenged corporate raider-- his body screams "hungry"). And the quick cuts to various signifiers of wealth (planes and penthouses and shiny skyscrapers) is certainly alluring.
It may be a case of too little, too late, and there is a depressingly nostalgic, "late in the Rocky series" vibe about some of the moments it shows: it could either be brilliant or embarrassing. But Stone has never been afraid to walk that line between "good" and "bad" movie-- it's that tension of styles and tones that made the original Wall Street work, and it's why Gordon Gekko is Stone's most compelling creation: because he disavows nothing. After more than a decade of mixed success, Stone must feel a bit like Gordon Gekko-- out for one more score that will bring him back. Which I guess makes me a wary Bud Fox-- I know it might be bad for me, but I can't help but be curious about his latest raid.