Like the stock market of late, "Wall Street" has its ups and its downs, but its principal equity is a bullish performance from Michael Douglas as a company-gobbling arbitrageur. Suddenly the lite romantic lead has become a virile dynamo, calling up visions of his father Kirk in this portrait of takeover tycoon Gordon Gekko. He's a lizardly villain in Money Hell, where men with concrete souls and Versace suits play games with pensioners' pennies and workers' paychecks.
These modern-day Midases come under the critical eye of ax-grinding Oliver Stone, as the "Platoon" director goes from the foxhole to the trading floor with this Faustian yarn, an entertaining morality play full of flaws, flair and finger-wagging. With its posturing politics and cardboard characterizations, "Wall Street" is not up to the director's past standards.
Stone again has chosen Charlie Sheen for his naive protagonist, a man-child in a moral mine field called the Bull Market of 1985. This time Sheen's disillusioned soldier is a facile broker struggling with the dark side of his nature.
Surely no MBA was ever so fresh-scrubbed as Sheen's Bud Fox, a model go-getter who falls under the spell of the avaricious Gekko, guru of greed. Bud comes from a wholesome, working-class family in Queens. His father, played by Charlie's father Martin Sheen, is a crusty trade unionist whose good example is lost on his money-hungry offspring. Bud looks down his nose at Dad's blue-collar values in this fiduciary variation on "The Flamingo Kid."
Slightly miscast and perhaps misdirected, the younger Sheen is never hungry enough or tough enough for an aspiring tycoon. His is a one-note performance that seems all the emptier opposite his father's rugged warmth and Douglas' bravura Gekko, who supposedly sees himself in Bud, though it's hard to imagine he was ever such a clean-cut striver.
Our Bud is pulling down about $50,000 a year, but he's borrowing from the old man just to stay even. And, oh, he is sorely tempted by the yuppie flotsam so beyond his reach -- the automatic sushi makers, the Schnabel canvases, the shallow women in dead animal skins. So he courts Gekko, finally winning his attention with a birthday gift of Cuban cigars. Gekko shreds the birthday card, but takes Bud under his wing, drawing him ever more deeply into Securities and Exchange Commission violations.
Soon Bud has a penthouse full of things -- objets trouve's favored by his interior decorator Darien. She's a deeply vapid gold miner played by Daryl Hannah. "I want to do for furniture what Laura Ashley has done for fabric," explains Darien. Bud and Darien have a faux love affair, a sham based on their respective lusts for power and money.
Hannah is principally part of the scenery -- a good thing, as she hasn't given a good performance since taking off that tail. She's just another yuppie appliance as seen by director of photography Robert Richardson, who careens around the penthouse seeking out artifice, a distracting technique that gives us eyeball whiplash. Richardson is best at capturing the melee of the market, with his "Rocky" ringside photography of frenetic traders swapping stocks.
"Wall Street" is at its weakest when it preaches visually or verbally. Stone doesn't trust the time-honored story line, supplementing the obvious moral with plenty of soapboxery. "I create nothing. I own," declares Gekko, just in case we've missed the point so far. In another instance, we find Bud digging into a plate of steak tartare during his first Gekko-bought lunch at 21 -- a carnivore about to chew the masses in labored symbolism.
And it's at its most boring when the story relies on shop talk. But then Hal Holbrook steps from behind a pillar, like a one-man Greek chorus, to interpret. He's a contrarian who believes in holding for the long-term, a great gloomy bear among the baby bulls.
It's easy to see why Gekko's elegant evil is more enticing than Holbrook's broadly played naysayer or even Martin Sheen's appealing father figure. He's cocky as a test pilot, amoral as a vampire and fanatic as the ayatollah.
Douglas plays Gekko with a terrible intensity. He raves and rants, but he has a rascal's humor. "The thing you've got to remember about WASPs: They love animals and can't stand people," he confides to his prote'ge', explaining his support of the Bronx Zoo.
There's a lunacy that leavens the rhetoric in this screenplay cowritten by Stone and Stanley Weiser. It's like "Scruples" for social democrats. Stone has an agenda that's all too easily read. And yet, it was his political ambiguity that proved the strength of "Platoon," a universality that let us all live through the Vietnam war.
But Stone puts us above it all in "Wall Street." Though we are meant to descend with the camera as it dives from the skyscrapers, we sit with Stone in judgment, castigating the one-dimensional money-grubbers and never once confronting our own lust for a shiitake mushroom kit.
Wall Street, at area theaters, is rated R and contains profanity.