Sunday, September 26, 2010

Warm-blooded lizard

Lessons in love from a Wall Street felon

There's a moment in Oliver Stone's sequel to Wall Street, this one subtitled Money Never Sleeps, in which Michael Douglas's legendary character Gordon Gekko goes from an archetype to a three-dimensional human being. Gekko, out of jail for fraud, is desperate to reunite with his estranged adult daughter (Carey Mulligan). When his prospective son-in-law (Shia LaBeouf), comes to a lecture Gekko gives hawking his new book, Gekko strikes a bargain in which the young man will secretly work to reunite father and daughter in exchange for information that will allow LaBeouf, also a financier, to destroy his adversary (Josh Brolin) and finance the clean energy company that's the repository of his idealism.  So it is that one's beloved unwittingly becomes a version of the parent you thought you left behind.

LaBeouf delivers on his end of the deal, and the three meet (the two men pretending it's for the first time) at a restaurant Gekko and his daughter used to frequent when she was a child. Gekko proceeds to praise his daughter on the website she's founded, and offers potentially provocative opinions that it's obvious he thinks she's likely to disagree with but which he also believes will nevertheless demonstrate his engagement and desire for honest exchange. His daughter strikes a conciliatory note, but at the very moment she does so, a successful figure from Gekko's previous life walks by his table, and Gekko simply can't help himself: He stands up to glad-hand him. This figure is as distantly civil as he can get away with, and as he walks away, you find yourself in the odd position of pitying Gekko, not simply because of the cringe-inducing brush-off he's just received, but because his irresistible urge -- his irresistible demon -- is leading him to sabotage the only authentic relationship in his life. His daughter, unsurprisingly, leaves the restaurant in disgust, to be chased by LaBeouf. Thankfully, she's still unaware of the faustian bargain he's struck, though it's no great plot revelation to say this won't be true for long.

I don't think I've ever made quite as colossal an error as Gekko did there, but I recognized myself at that moment, my own itches, professional and otherwise, similarly compelling. One of the good things about the sequel, which is zestfully made if a bit rambling in its structure, is that Gekko's ambiguities are never fully resolved. Later in the movie, he commits an even more selfish act in ways that nevertheless appear to redound the the benefit of all involved. This doesn't necessarily absolve him, but it also makes it harder to condemn him for the essence of a character that may not finally be a matter of choice.

A movie like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps reminds one that love is very often a matter of despite rather than because, particularly in the case of parents and children. I didn't expect to learn a lesson in humility -- humility about the finite patience of loved ones, the price of compulsions, or the limits of one's ability to change -- from Gordon Gekko. But perhaps taking lessons where you find them is part of what humility means.