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MOVIE REVIEWS : 'Wall Street' Lays an Egg

December 11, 1987|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

Gordon Gekko--great, great name for the basilisk-eyed corporate raider played by Michael Douglas with such icy ferocity in "Wall Street." It must have made director and co-writer Oliver Stone chortle at the thought of it: a gecko is one of those lizards with a large head and suction-cup feet that let it go fearlessly up the slickest surface.

And "Wall Street" (selected theaters) is the slickest surface possible, a Gatling-gun fast, gaudy entertainment in which the bulls and the bears and the geckos are laid out for us with a brave, simplistic show of movie-making razzle-dazzle.

It's fun for a while, a high-tech primer of life in the bull market--the movie is very carefully set in 1985--that takes us civilians around back stage to watch all the snorting, crowding bulls, trampling on one another but mostly trampling on values and ethics.

Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox is our guide, an impressionable fledgling salesman in a brokerage house that, except for its computers and telephones, might be a bookkeeper's office from Dickens' day, with rows of open desks, prowling bosses and terrorized clerks.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday December 14, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 4 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
An editing error in Friday's review of "Wall Street" resulted in a misstatement of Sheila Benson's opinion of the film's screenplay. The review should have read: "With the exception of Sylvia Miles as a real estate maven, dismissing the entire Westside with one wave of her Press-On nails, you can forget the women's roles in 'Wall Street' anyway. They are wretchedly written and directed."

Industrious but uninspired, Bud is lit by no streaks of lightning: He's a sort of brown-suited mouth breather of the business world. Mostly, he seems to have absorbed nothing in the way of values from a father who seems to be bristling with them. Carl Fox, played exceptionally well by Charlie's own father, Martin Sheen, is the outspoken head of a mechanic's union at a small independent airline into which he's put his heart and soul.

Bud worships at another shrine. He yearns to be "a player" on Wall Street like the fiercest, most successful player there: Gordon "rip out their hearts" Gekko, a man with a tobacco auctioneer's speed and a hockey puck where a heart should be.

Stone and his aggressively marauding cameraman have a field day with Douglas' entrance as Gekko. Sanctum doors are flung open, miles of floor are whooshed across and finally, with the financial district behind him and Bud in awe in front of him, we find Gekko--monitoring his own blood pressure while he conducts an audience. It's worthy of the Wizard of Oz.

And it's a wizardly turn by Douglas, who can at last abandon being a square goody-good for a crack at the kind of tooth-glinting role that made his old man. It's Kirk Douglas your mind goes to instantly, buzz-sawing his way through the florid excesses of "Champion" or "The Bad and the Beautiful," movies where half the fun was the indecently enjoyable melodrama of it all.

We can be indecently grateful for Michael Douglas--and Terence Stamp as Sir Larry Wildman, Gekko's British better, the only actor who can match him strength for strength, sneer for sneer, tailoring for tailoring. But from Gekko's entrance onward, the screenplay, by Stone and Stanley Weiser, becomes thinner, more predictable, more preachy until it bottoms out as the "Reefer Madness" of the brokerage world.

Where Gekko beckons, the rookie player follows. And Gekko's Mephistopheles is smart enough to rebuff Bud again and again, until he is slavering for his chance at life in the slip stream. Soon Bud has crossed every line of business ethics; he begins digging up insider tips for Gekko while dallying with one of the high life's pricier perks, interior decorator Daryl Hannah.

Meanwhile, in Bud's office, veteran trader Hal Holbrook, who does everything but wear a sandwich board saying the Voice of Morality, utters homilies about men looking into the abyss and at that moment finding their character.

The atrocities Hannah commits in the name of redecoration are supposed to be part of the movie's irony--a cheap shot that neutralizes her character. With the exception of Sylvia Miles as a real estate maven, dismissing the entire West Side with one wave of her Press-On nails, you can forget the women's roles in "Wall Street" anyway. They are wretchedly written and directed in keeping with their writing.

Everything eventually turns on Bud's utter astonishment that Gekko would not keep his word to the stockholders of a distressed company. It ranks, in Great Moments of Naivete, with Charlie Brown's annual faith that Lucy will hold that football for him, but Charlie Sheen's Bud does not have the appeal of Charlie Brown--only the chuckle-headedness.

In "Platoon," Stone's most glaring weakness--his need to choke his characters with mouthfuls of rhetoric--could be overlooked in the sweep and motion around them. It wasn't subtle, but with the sort of immediacy he was able to muster and with his impassioned sense of recollection, you didn't really miss subtle. Presumably Stone has insider information about Wall Street too; the movie is dedicated to his stockbroker-father.

But this time there isn't enough of a war raging to keep the threadbare quality of the story from showing through. (There is an abundance of movement in the camera work of "Platoon's" Robert Richardson--however, this time it's enough motion to make the unwary carsick.)

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