Thursday, September 15, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Wall Street" is Overrated

Michael Douglas in Wall Street
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Snowden is released in theaters this Friday.
Theory: Wall Street (1987) is overrated.

I'm unsure if this is a controversial statement, but I do honestly think that Oliver Stone is a valuable filmmaker. If one is to look of his body of work, he has managed to dramatize plenty of important moments in America's recent political history and make it pop off the screen. Films like Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July feel like vital insights into the Vietnam War. JFK feels like a prescient commentary on America's obsession with uncertainty. Even the scrappy Natural Born Killers has a sense of purpose to its violent exterior. Even if I can honestly say that I don't always agree with his politics, he does make cinema that is assured and has a voice that is strictly his. He may have waned in recent years, but I still think that there's something intriguing about his work in W. and, to a lesser extent, Savages.

In general, I would say that his film are good. Even if I don't love them, they're good. It's why I hold out hope that Snowden is going to be pretty good. However, there is one film that I generally don't understand. Despite being able to defend W. as an underrated attempt to sympathize a notorious president, I have trouble seeing the artistic merits of another one of his films, and one that is more critically acclaimed at that. It also features one of, if not his, most iconic figure and helped to spawn one of his only sequels a few decades later. I am talking about the problematic and dull as nails film from 1987 called Wall Street.

To put it bluntly: I think that the film is overrated. I think that a large part stems from my own perspective. To clarify, I generally don't find affection for the 80's aesthetic nor do I have an acceptance of capitalism or greedy stockbrokers. The closest that I have come to this was with The Wolf of Wall Street - though even that was after a second viewing that helped me understand the satire better. I don't know that I could ever enjoy a drama where the viewpoint of the film is that, as Michael Douglas' Gordon Gecko would say, "Greed is good." It's one of the reasons that I couldn't stand The Big Short last year. I don't like the feeling of paying to see a movie only to have the movie explain how it ripped me off. Again, this is my perspective and it may be the prime reason that Wall Street's brilliance alludes me.

I am sure that Wall Street was far more relevant to the late 80's. I do know that with Reagonomics and a certain reckless embrace of capitalism that Wall Street was far more celebratory. The extent to which I know this stuff is limited, but I'm sure that this is the small basis for what makes me at least accept the film's placement in history. It was about a new kid (Charlie Sheen) who works with Gecko and discovers the horrors of Wall Street. Gecko worked hard to become stinking rich, and now he is drunk with power. There is an allure to that, but the issue is that greed is the only allure in the whole equation. The film embraces the richness of stocks and how it consumes Gecko. He is supposed to be a villain, and all because he has this defiant greediness that frankly hasn't gone away. It likely explains why there was a sequel called Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps from 2010. It's a theme that's still relevant.

The issue is that I don't think that it makes for great cinema, though. Speaking as Stone has shown a knack in his relatively short career at that point for intimate dramatic moments, one could only imagine what drew him to the film. He would exploit how scary greediness is. He would reveal the corruption of the real life Wall Street. These are all fair points. However, I do think that he buries it in a straightforward drama that lacks the flair of almost everything else that he's done. There are countless conversations about greed and the contemplative nature that comes with it. The story is mature, but I don't know that Stone would really make an impact in nuanced drama until Born on the Fourth of July. What he did in Wall Street was fine, but didn't have much else going on.

For lack of a better work, it's also dated. Maybe the ideals still ring true and Gecko continues to resonate to an unfortunate population. Yet I don't feel the excitement in being exposed to Stone's vision of Wall Street that I did with JFK or Platoon. It is boring and really hard to access the further that time goes from it. The ideas have been presented in brighter packages with livelier banter. The 80's unfortunately had a distinct look that is in some ways embarrassing the more decades you get away from it. Everything about the film looks to be from the era in ways that don't handicap Stone's other films. It may be Stone's attempt at the prestige drama shtick. I don't know. All I know is that his viewpoint of corruption in Wall Street is a sore spot in an otherwise electric film career up to that point.

Though I will accept that Gecko is a character who resonates with people wanting to be rich and powerful. I even accept that Stone feels bad that people misconstrue him as a hero in any measure. However, I do think that it's one of those films that hasn't aged well and whose subtext is hard to recognize because of this. I do accept that there's a good reason and artistic value in telling this story, but it doesn't entertain quite like Stone's other films. At the end of the day, this is my biggest issue with Wall Street. It's just not fun to watch. I know that some cinema thrives on this ideal, but Stone has rarely struck me as suffering from that. Here's hoping that he never makes anything this boring again.

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