Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

The fact of the matter is that greed could very well be good. Greed could be the thing that keeps you working on your craft an hour longer, the drive that puts you in the gym that extra day a week, the inkling that perhaps your impossible idea is doable with a little elbow grease. There's a pretty good evolutionary reason for greed. "Getting by" is not the way to make improvements, and greed, when infused with a healthy amount of motivation and social conscience, can lead to tremendous good. But unchecked greed? It's a nightmare, the Achilles' heel of our financial system.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is about both types of greed, all kinds of people, and the truth of our current economy.

The shocking part of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is that it might just be the thing that makes people sit up and take note of the calamity unleashed by a few greedy folks with unlimited influence and little in the way of a moral hazard. Reams of literature certainly haven't made a dent. Goldman Sachs' fellas calmly explaining how they gamed the system didn't seem to have an impact. So we're left with Oliver Stone, a gifted director to be sure, but not the guy I would have picked out as the canary in the coal mine two years ago.

But I digress. What is this movie all about? Shia LaBeouf is Jacob Moore, a proprietary trader at a prestigious Wall Street firm. His girlfriend, Winnie Gekko, played by Carey Mulligan, has a last name you might recognize. Her poppa, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), gets out of prison right out the outset and is up to his old tricks, only without any capital. Shia has a rough day at the office and reaches out to estranged father Gekko. And we're off!

LaBeouf's firm mirrors the implosion that occurred at Bear Stearns, right down to the meetings with the Federal Reserve Board and the paltry single-digit share price negotiated by the government for JP Morgan. Josh Brolin plays a heavy hitter at fictional bank Churchill Schwartz; he's the guy saying, "These guys have too many toxic assets!" while not revealing door number two ... that they all have troubled assets. The whole thing was a quicksand playground, only propped up by the strength of confidence the government artificially infused.

The real-life facts behind this fiasco still seem relatively unknown on Main Street, so a quick rundown might help you enjoy this film a bit more. To recap:

1. Big national banks lent to saps without credit history.

2. They then pooled these terrible loans into bonds.

3. Afterward, they duped the ratings agencies into labeling the bonds AAA, or "safe."

4. They sold the bonds to you, through your 401(k), to individual investors who didn't know any better, or to anyone managing large pools of money.

5. They then took out insurance against the looming disaster by swapping what amounted to credit insurance all over the place, spreading the risk throughout the world.

6. Finally, just for good measure, they bet against their own awful bonds.

7. Relax, give yourself a $20 million bonus, and wait for the Fed to realize they've got to intervene.

8. Vacation! Anyone up for drinks in Bimini?

The truly crazy thing was how little responsibility anyone running as fast as possible into a brick wall bothered to take. Quite the contrary -- fiscally responsible firms were punished for not being involved in what amounted to the greatest robber baron money grab of the past 100 years. The fact that the bankers in Oliver Stone's film show more moral scruples than anyone did in real life is another loony aspect. When Oliver Stone is the guy underplaying, actually trying to flesh out and provide a human angle to a massively destructive industry you know something has gone seriously cattywampus.

Those who don't appreciate Stone's visual imbroglios will be turned off by this piece. Those who don't want to hear about all this "heady" financial business won't be lining up either. But for the rest of us, those interested in bubbles and the speed at which a few dedicated souls can cripple an economy, there's much to admire here. Well paced, visually pleasing, and accompanied by a luscious soundtrack from David Byrne and Brian Eno, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is an absolute treat. Well, maybe not a treat in that treats are tasty and don't alter the way in which you see humanity. But it's a film we need, now, more than ever. That's gotta count for something.

Grade: B+