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May 5, 2009

Oh No: Stone, Douglas Back for Wall Street 2?

The news came last week that both director Oliver Stone and star Michael Douglas are on board for a sequel to the seminal 1988 drama Wall Street. That film, set in the original era of junk bonds and corporate raiders, is remembered most for Douglas's portrayal of icy Wall Street titan Gordon Gekko, who argued that "greed is good, greed is right, greed works."

The time may appear ripe for a revisiting of the story. Wall Street, after all, is a trendy villain once again, and the film's subject matter is therefore timely. But for several reasons, I’m skeptical as to whether the project is a good idea, whether it will succeed and whether it has any chance of being a good movie at all.

For one thing, the rumored storyline just sounds horrible. One recent script – which may, in fairness, not be used for the final version – has Douglas's Gekko getting out of prison after 14 years, embarking on the lecture circuit and seeking to reunite with his estranged daughter, while also mentoring a young trader (to be played by Shia LaBeouf) battling an evil Wall Street firm.

A reformed Gekko? More stock villains based on today's AIG bonus-takers? Who in the world wants to see that? 

Furthermore, people angry at Wall Street aren't going to turn out to see a movie about Wall Street, even if the bankers are the bad guys. If the past 10 years of terrorism/Iraq/political corruption thrillers have taught us anything, it's that populist anger at real-life villains doesn't translate into ticket sales. The movie-going public would prefer to ignore films about bad stuff that they're already seeing in the news every day, even if they flatter their political prejudices.

Then there's the cast. Douglas hasn't appeared in a film of consequence in at least 10 years, and neither of his co-stars (Charlie Sheen and Darryl Hannah) are expected to return. Sheen is busy starring on the decade's most hackish and unfunny sitcom, while Hannah's performance in the original Wall Street was so legendarily bad that she probably won’t be missed either. As for LaBeouf, the last time he appeared as "the young guy" in a 20-years-later sequel (last year's misbegotten Indiana Jones film) it didn't work out so well.

While Stone's last two films, 2004's World Trade Center and last year's W, were both reasonably good, neither came close to capturing the zeitgeist. W in particular, rather than be a JFK-like cultural lightning rod like the director clearly intended, was seen by almost no one and got zero Oscar consideration. But one problem with Stone's work is that it's gotten less subtle – and a lot more obvious – over the years, coming to a nadir with the debacle that was Natural Born Killers in the mid-'90s.

In the original Wall Street, the left-leaning Stone clearly meant to make Gekko a villain and the film itself "a radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality" (in Roger Ebert's phrase at the time). As a result, parts of its audience have spent two decades misunderstanding the film, taking "Greed is Good" at face value and identifying with Douglas's evil corporate raider. Some were even inspired by the film to seek careers in finance.
Could Wall Street 2 have a similar effect? Based on what we know about it so far, I'm guessing no.


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