Pop movies with endings as tonally discordant as Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps‘ bizarre final minutes don’t come along so frequently that they can be easily written off. Certainly not when they open number one at the box office.
In fact, the last time I can remember being so weirded out and conflicted about a wide-release, mainstream movie’s coda was way back in 2001, when Steven Spielberg’s underrated, monastic boy robot saga A.I. Artificial Intelligence top the charts. (I expect Wall Street‘s second weekend take to fall off as sharply as did A.I.‘s.)
But unlike the ending of A.I., a truly heavy emotional wallop in which Haley Joel Osment’s post-apocalyptic Pinocchio seemingly commits spiritual matricide in order to be just a little bit closer to the pseudo-mother spectre hanging over his very existence, the conclusion of Wall Street 2 seems to have arrived on its thematic complexity almost by accident.
Unrepentant yuppie spokes-con Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) return to form in this sequel is almost eclipsed by the notable showboating by director Oliver Stone, who clearly seems to see the movie as an opportunity to double down on his own reduced reputation. (Stone himself makes a cameo appearance as one of the rapidly diminishing pool of moneyed haves just waiting to be victimized by the Wall Street jackals.)
At the beginning of the film, Gekko is released from prison, where he has just finished serving a “let’s make an example of him” sentence for insider trading and other “victimless” crimes. His daughter’s boyfriend Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf), a little piranha hoping to devour a few of Wall Street’s sacred cows, tries to get in good with the deposed guru of greed, using Gekko’s tips as a way to enact revenge against the corporate baron, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), whose whisper campaigns helped destroy the company Moore’s mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) built.
The plot machinations are a bit much, but the underlying theme of Wall Street 2 seems straightforward. If the first film’s mantra was “greed is good,” the sequel suggests “greed destroys.” Or does it? Moore’s plotting and gullibility are as much to blame for the inevitable disasters and betrayals that fall upon him like so many stock prices. That Moore uses his relationship with Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), who he knows full well distrusts her own father, as collateral means everything which follows is on his own head.
Which leads up to the final scenes, in which Gekko Sr. makes what is, to him, an insignificant financial gesture to Gekko Jr. (who is by film’s end carrying his grandchild), a gesture which astonishingly yields to reconciliations all around. What?! Gekko re-imagined as a modestly altruistic paterfamilias? Did anyone truly want to see Mr. “Greed Is Good” perform this drastic an about face?
But look closer at the seemingly tossed-off scenes that play out behind the closing credits. All of those “one year later” vignettes showing the movie’s characters walking wounded toward an upper middle class paradise are offset by the camera’s wandering glances at the bubbles being blown by a group of children. The implication is that the next big economic bubble is about to burst, and The Powers That Be are seducing the populace into letting it happen by appealing to their desire for domestic stasis. In other words, the most compelling bit of social commentary in the entire movie happens as most people are already walking out of the theater.
Way to bury the lead, Oliver Stone!
Eric Henderson is a web producer and film blogger for WCCO.COM.