The Dinner: Burritos and Bud at Puerto Vallarta (4727 California Ave).
Barry Wetcher/20th Century Fox Gordon Gekko is back, with a new kid to mentor.
The Screenplate: The first few scenes of Oliver Stone's topical sequel to 1987's Wall Street are pure comedy. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) emerges from a long prison stint to collect his belongings, including a late '80s model Motorola cell phone the size of a cat. His hair is gray and much thinner than during his sleek, Reagan-era prime. His face has sagged. He looks defeated and paunchy. A limo pulls up to greet another departing inmate--but it's for some young hip-hop impresario, not the disgraced, forgotten old financier. Gekko, the man once celebrated and excoriated for "greed is good," is now a fossil, a relic. He'll take the bus. And though it's funny to see him so humiliated, and though WSMNS isn't exactly a great film, it packs a certain timely punch. Not only are we suffering through the long tail of the subprime mortgage collapse, but Douglas is also battling cancer. All those thousand-dollar cigars and bottles of Champagne have taken their toll. And if Gekko begins the film in disgrace, then gradually earns his humanity back, the cyclical nature of Wall Street poignantly overlaps with Wall Street's underlying message: In the long run, no matter how our investments fare, we'll all be dead...Oliver Stone, with his multiple Oscars, has been living the high life for nearly three decades. It doesn't matter if he makes documentaries about, and sympathizes with, ossified leftists like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Though he takes pains to make his hero Jake (Shia LaBeouf) a fatherless, blue-collar striver (one who once caddied for his Wall Street mentor, played by Frank Langella), Stone can't get over his love for instant financial information, gossip at the speed of light, and Manhattan penthouses far removed from us drones who suffer each fluctuation of the Dow Jones average.
As the movie begins, Jake is in love with Gekko's daughter (hapless Carey Mulligan, given the same blank pages all women receive in a Stone screenplay). In 2008, ex-con Gekko has turned Demosthenes or Cassandra, writing a book denouncing the subprime debt, collateralized debt obligations, and "steroid banking" that threaten our once-proud capitalist system. He's now a Wall Street bear (or a wolf in bear's clothing). Jake is impressed, and he soon gloms onto his new mentor, hoping to broker a father-daughter reconciliation in exchange for information to sink his nemesis (Josh Brolin, too big to fail).
All this melodrama takes place in a rarefied milieu of private helicopters, roads closed off for Ducatti test rides, and bejeweled predators' balls. Not your world. Not mine. Perhaps not even Stone's. That's why dinner at Puerto Vallarta is a refreshing contrast to the problems and revenge schemes of these high-rollers.
West Seattle's Junction neighborhood is a cheerful model of friendly old mom-and-pop retail. With a Cupcake Royale, Easy Street Records, and even a model train shop among its many pubs and family restaurants, it would seem far-removed from bailouts and TARP moneys. But there are empty storefronts, their windows filled with newspapers. The used bookstores have racks full of paperbacks and VHS tapes on the sidewalks. Wall Street is closer to California Avenue and Alaska Street than you might think, though you'd never know it from the movie Wall Street.
Sure, Gekko gets a laugh by admitting he rents, not owns, his post-prison penthouse. His new humility, he tells Jake, has him using the subways, not limousines. He preaches against the debt and toxic assets that destroy Jake's bank early in the film, but Jake is swiftly hired by his rival. Unlike the actual events of 2008-09, nobody feels much pain. Susan Sarandon shows up, briefly, as Jake's foolish, real-estate-besotted mother, a nurse turned house-flipper who begs her son for a bailout. But neither does she really suffer much as the bubble bursts around them.
Stone's best movies, like Salvador and Platoon, weren't about the rich and powerful. They were about guys who, far from the war zone, would eat at places like Puerto Vallarta, ordering from the cheap tasty menu, enjoying the abundant tortilla chips and regular water refills from the courteous staff (who know their regulars). They'd order from a beer list divided in two columns: American and Mexican. It's a family place where nobody would ever complain about a crying baby. But neither Gekko nor his protégé Jake ever descend among us regular folk in WSMNS.
And if Stone and his screenwriters do fling around a lot of angry phrases about debt and greed and CDOs and "moral hazard," the film falls short of actually explaining what went wrong in the subprime meltdown. (There are many books for that, plus Charles Ferguson's forthcoming documentary Inside Job.) Stone just uses the film as a backdrop, a scrim of corporate hubris, to a family reconciliation story. Gekko's daughter has a secret $100 million trust fund, so Jake hardly needs to work. Gekko might be after her money, but he might also have a change of heart. WSMNS is finally more of a soap opera than financial exposé. Stone is scornful of the folly and dishonesty on Wall Street, and of the public's own credulity in the housing bubble, but he still lives in side a Malibu mansion. Which is why you'll never find him eating at Puerto Vallarta.