Isn’t going to work every day wonderful? Getting up early in the morning, squashing yourself into a train full of flatulent commuters and then spending most of the day answering badly written, poorly thought-out emails. But things were even worse in the 80s. Back then you had to write letters and back then you didn’t have the consolation of an ipod on your trip home - your shuffles were only 60 minutes long, you had to switch sides halfway through and Westlife had yet to record an album. Those were dark days.
Despite this, Wall Street begins in a very jaunty fashion. Frank Sinatra plays on the soundtrack and the trials and tribulations of the morning routine are filmed with gentle exasperation - the opening seems to exude the American belief that if you work hard enough you’ll attain a comfortable level of prickdom and will no longer have to tolerate this daily abasement.
A believer in this extremely deluded conviction is Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen. He begins the film as a low-grade stockbroker, but he thinks that if he works hard enough, if he makes enough connections and kisses enough arse, he too will have a part of the American Dream. And even though most people would receive only a handful a scraps for humiliating themselves in this fashion (a minuscule pay rise, perhaps 10 days annual paid vacation instead of 5, or if they’re really good, their own cupboard-sized office), Fox actually gets some sizeable rewards for his toadying.
Fox goes from cold-calling old fogies in a loud, sweaty office to hobnobbing with the rich and powerful. And how does he do this? He does it by selling out his father.
Bud’s dad, played by Martin Sheen, works for an airline. He’s a blue-collar guy who likes to unwind after an honest, hard day’s work with a smoke and some beer. He’s the complete opposite of his white-collar son who likes nothing more than making his own pasta in his pretentious apartment with his vacuous girlfriend.
The temptation in this film is Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). He’s the Lucifer-type figure that tempts the innocent Fox to stray from the path of decency. He teaches Fox to love nothing but money and to indulge in the mindless pursuit of it. He also throws a woman his way and very quickly Fox becomes Gekko’s loyal lapdog.
Some of the funniest scenes in the film revolve around Fox’s attempts to modernise his apartment. He and his girlfriend staple some fake brickwork to a wall and then paint it to make it look rough and ready - like the plaster is peeling off the walls and exposing the brickwork underneath. It’s some of the most pretentious design I’ve ever seen but it’s presented here as desirable and cutting edge. There’s also a hilarious exchange where Daryl Hannah, who produces a performance so stunningly flat that it seems like consciousness is a foreign concept to her, says that she wants to do for furniture what Laura Ashley did for fabrics. You mean, produce horribly bland, middlebrow vomit? Yeah, fuck you.
And so it’s for these very meagre pleasures that Fox decides to sell out his father’s company and turn them over to the shark Gekko - a pretentious apartment and some vacant poontang.
It’s at this point that you realise that the film is nothing more than a blindingly obvious morality tale. What’s more important, family or money? Anyone with half a brain should know that family comes first. I mean, sure you can sell everyone out and become Donald Trump with a bowlful of Shredded Wheat on your head hawking crappy mattresses, but what kind of comfort does money provide? Well, aside from innumerable blow jobs and an endless supply of cocaine, not much.
Daddy Fox immediately sees through Gekko’s bullshit and knows that he only gives a fuck about money. Bud is a white collar prick who doesn’t know his arse from his elbow, while daddy is a pure, unclouded, blue collar saint who can see the world for what it really is.
Seeing as Bud’s father is played by Martin Sheen, Charlie’s real life father, you’d think that their scenes would have some authenticity about them. You’d be thinking wrong. There’s a particularly risible scene after his father has a heart attack where Charlie can only express his emotional distress by blinking. Clearly talent skips a generation.
Still, it’s fun watching Sheen’s performance and realising that Christian Bale stole lots of Bud’s inflections for his role as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
The most fun thing about Wall Street is Gekko. Some of the crap he spews is priceless. My favourite line is, ‘If you want a friend, get a dog.’ Basically he wants people with no feelings. He’s a horrible, preposterous man, but he’s easily the most interesting thing in the film. His stupid, mindless pursuit of money represents everything that is wrong about America - the lack of feeling, the lack of compassion, the knuckleheaded belief that consumption is more important than understanding. It’s no wonder that he’s been the subject of endless parodies (Del Boy’s yuppie phase in Only Fools and Horses being the best by far).
A particularly hilarious Gekko moment is when he calls Bud early one morning to tell him how beautiful the sunrise looks from his beach. He says that no painting has ever been able to capture its beauty. His pomposity is off the chart. But what takes the scene to whole new level is that Bud seems to be having an orgasm on the other line - just look at his face; he’s lapping this crap up and spunking in his boxers.
More crap comes during Gekko’s ‘greed is good’ speech. He claims that he’s a liberator of companies. He claims that he’s rescuing them from bad management. He certainly has a point that managers are the bane of corporate life. Too many of them do too little for too much money. But Gekko is not a liberator. He’s an executioner. He’s there to cut everything up and take the spoils. He’s part of the destructive force of capitalism - he’s a leach that sucks the blood out of the economy; he doesn’t actually produce anything, he’s just a carpetbagger in a suit.
So the fact that Bud sees all of this but still looks up to Gekko for so long just shows what a stupid character he is. And when he finally does realise what’s going on, the film illustrates his mental anguish in the lamest way possible - Bud wakes surrounded by empty pizza boxes and wonky venetian blinds. Yeah, he’s seriously gone off the rails there.
Perhaps realising that it’s straining to come to a satisfying conclusion, the film ends with a silly fight in Central Park and then shows that Bud has set-up Gekko for prosecution (he’s been wearing a wire while Gekko makes incriminating statements). Yes, occasionally a Gekko or a Madoff gets prosecuted, but some things never change. Money never sleeps and shit always smells. (To my eternal disappointment, the title Wall Street: Shit Always Smells was rejected for the upcoming sequel.)