The stock market is a fast-paced, exciting, and often downright cruel place. On many occasions, Hollywood has provided us with interesting anti-heroes from Wall Street. Here are some of the most memorable. If only because, in 2022, a businessperson must be smart, brave and, of course, gritty if they want to succeed. And it’s fair to say that these days, we’re certainly witnessing stories fit for the silver screen.
Eddie Murphy was one of the most successful comedians of the eighties. In his second film, 1983’s Trading Places, he and Dan Aykroyd are a legendary pair. Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) is a simple hustler from the other side of the tracks, while Lewis Winthorpe (Aykroyd) is a wealthy broker at the Wall Street firm of the Duke Brothers. The classic question: can you have a completely different career if you have the backbone to do it? The Duke brothers make a bet on whether Valentine, a born loser, can become as successful a businessman as Winthorpe if given the right environment, or whether the self-absorbed Winthorpe can become a penniless criminal if the tables are turned.
Oliver Stone’s first major film on the subject was Wall Street (1987). Stone’s films give a sharp impression of a world and a subject of his choice, be it the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, or the sweaty and stressful world of the stock markets. After the film, Gordon Gekko’s name became a fixture on Wall Street: the ruthless, unbridled stockbroker who is still quoted and referred to on many occasions. Michael Douglas plays the manipulative, almost psychopathic character, who is undeterred by anything or anyone but success, but who is nonetheless weakened when he meets his new employee Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), who reminds him of his younger self and takes him under his wing. Bud initially worships his master and tries to learn the stock market magician’s secrets. However, he discovers that Gekko has tricked him, and if he wants to avoid prison, he must trap his cunning adversary. The film won Michael Douglas an Academy Award, and thirty-two years later, a sequel (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) followed.
The cult figure of Gekko was not an easy character to approach, but eventually, someone did. In 2000, the film American Psycho, based on the acclaimed book by Bret Easton Ellis, was released, with Christian Bale in the brilliant role of Patrick Bateman, a successful Wall Street banker who is intelligent, charming, tough and, not least, a genuine psychopath who, out of his model bourgeois self, murders his surroundings with selective cruelty. Because of the unpredictability of the protagonist, the film is very tense throughout, as we never know when he will erupt into aggression. No one is safe, be it a cheap prostitute or a wealthy finance acquaintance. Patrick Bateman snaps even when someone says no to him, and even when someone else’s business card is more stylish. He holds up a mirror to us and horrifies us because, for him, human life is worthless, everyone is a victim, and he is the one who decides the fate of others. Meanwhile, he is full of fear and pain; deep down, he longs for help and love. He is a monster with a beating heart somewhere, but he rarely listens.
Margin Call (2011) is not only an excellent portrayal of the 2008 financial and economic crisis, but also a pioneer among corporate cinema films that depict the internal mechanisms and conflicts of large corporations. Peter (Zachary Quinto) works as a risk analyst at one of the most influential investment banks. One day, almost everyone who works on the same floor with him receives a letter of resignation, including Peter’s boss Eric (Stanley Tucci), who hands Peter a thumb drive on his way out, telling him to look at the information on it, but to be very careful. On the flash drive is Eric’s latest work, in which he models the economic events of the coming days and the threat of a bigger financial crisis than ever before. Peter appeals to the heads of traders (Paul Bettany and Kevin Spacey) who know that if the analysis is correct, the whole stock market could collapse in the next few hours. One of the most memorable moments in Chandor’s film is when the banker asks for an explanation of what is happening, as if he were talking to a golden retriever.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is one of the latest in Martin Scorsese’s long renaissance. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of the best performances of his career as the notorious stock market manipulator. He brilliantly portrays first the up-and-coming intern in the cheap suit, then the successful businessman at the top with a beautiful wife and a huge house, and finally the corrupt, drug-addled CEO who can’t stop. The story is true: Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio) started his career as an honest stockbroker, grasped the famous American dream and by the late 1980s was the owner of one of the largest brokerage firms, earning $1 million a week by the age of 26, and is now referred to as one of the most famous con men in the United States. The film itself was a worldwide sensation and, in addition to being one of the most humorous films of the year, it is an authentic portrait of an era and a world where nothing matters but profit!
The Big Short (2015) is probably the smartest and most informative film yet made about the 2008 financial crisis, with a star-studded cast that could have been enough for three movies. The film, based on the documentary novel by Michael Lewis, is a three-part, multi-perspective analysis of the causes of the crisis and the human manipulations that led to the financial -–and moral – nadir, with the help of such luminaries as Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling.