Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes Film Fest 2010 (World Premiere, Out of Competition)–Nearly a quarter of a century after the original detonated public consciousness, and the poison dart “Greed is good,” became an ideological test about the morality of money, Oliver Stone’s sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is the reckoning.

Stone is naturally an older, different director, but he retains a passion and anger. The movie is something of a structural mess, but it is certainly entertaining and compulsively watchable. It’s redeemed by the emotional interplay of the strong and charismatic actors and a propulsive visual style that gives the work a snap and mercurial polish.
But what’s also disappointing is the movie almost too accurately captures the tenor of the moment. It’s a little bit too enthralled at the subject matter and the privileged aura of the foundations and institutions it is set in to deliver the harsh and damaging conclusion the movie needed to become something more.
The following quote captures the essence and both what's good, bad, and hyperbolic about the picture: "I never thought of money as a woman before. She’s a bitch that never sleeps and now she’s jealous.”
In the 1987 original, Michael Douglas won an Academy award for his leathery, shrewd and cannily self-absorbed Gordon Gekko, the entrepreneurial capitalist run amok. The first film proved eerily prescient, released just weeks after the devastating October market crash underlined the frightening volatility and tumult of that milieu. Stone wrote the original script with Stanley Weiser, and they governed it to the pulsating rhythms and sleek amorality of key 1950s New York movies, in particular Alexander Mackendrick’s landmark “The Sweet Smell of Success,” from the Clifford Odets script.
The original was also a benchmark for Stone. It was his first film since 1986 career breakthrough “Platoon” that won best picture and best director Oscars. It coincided with a particularly deeply personal, autobiographical strain in his films, “Salvador,” “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” His father was a stockbroker (the Hal Halbrook character in the original was said to be patterned on him).
Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, the new film has a tabloid spontaneity and freshness that captures the feeding frenzy and the volatile mood swings the current economic crisis is heir to. From a prologue set in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the catastrophic economic meltdown spurred by subprime mortgage lending, credit swaps and exotic trading of derivatives, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” has a unmistakable topicality.
Like the first film (and “Platoon,” for that matter), the movie is about the war between a good and bad father. The new movie opens with Gekko’s release from federal prison on the insider trading and racketeering charges that ended the first film. The bulk of the action is set during the crucial and damaging period of 2008, when the full scale of the international credit disorder was dissolving the very foundations of the leading financial markets.
The second film is another stark lesson in a young man’s unsentimental education. The new film replaces one idealized, self-made young kid for another. Charlie Sheen’s brash and vulnerable original now gives way to Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf), a bright, ambitious energy specialist for a venerable Wall Street investment banking firm. He has a special relationship with the company’s general partner, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). He’s vested, both personally and professionally, with providing capitalization to a company specializing in developing alternate energy sources.
More important, he lives with Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a leftist Internet journalist who is also Gekko’s estranged daughter.
Gekko has ostensibly taken on the mantle of the wise seer encouraging restraint and caution, even publishing a book about his own redemption, “Is Greed Good?” He’s somewhat withdrawn and defeated man, with haunted eyes and weathered look, living a Lear-like existence on the outside, shunned by the very powerbrokers and wheeler dealers he once proudly and elegantly traded elbows with.
The narrative strands coalesce after a catastrophic sequence of events occasions the collapse of the venerable investment firm and the public humiliation and private demise of Zabel. Reeling from the loss of his mentor, Jake seeks his own brand of payback. He orchestrates a deft market reprisal attack against the company, a blatant Goldman Sachs stand in and their noxious star executive, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), that he regards as complicit in his company’s professional downfall.
He also attempts to facilitate a rapprochement between Winnie and her father. That developing and complicated relationship of power, control and various transactional deals, between father and daughter, and that also comes to ensnare Jake is the emotional centerpiece of the movie. Questions of loyalty, ambition and self-interest collide and play off each other. Do you sting people, Gordon wants to know about this new young man. It’s a reference, perhaps, to Orson Welles’ great speech in “Mr. Arkadin,” about a man’s fate and destiny.
Stone remains a very good director of actors. The collision of cultures, of generation divide and conflict over ideas and ambition, is effectively played out in the bodies and puffed up, wary and tough exchanges among the three male leads: LaBeouf, Douglas and Brolin. LaBeouf is more attuned to the male ingénue parts of “Transformers”; he lacks the gravitas and presence of a major actor, but he speed, charm and a quickness that resonates on camera. Brolin’s reptilian charm makes for a palpable (and too easy) villain, but it is not the dramatically revealing character.
After her breakthrough turn in “An Education,” Mulligan has a trickier part, and the role is somewhat underwritten. In her key scenes, Mulligan is up to the challenge, finding both a grace and believability in a wounded young woman reluctant to be drawn back to man responsible for her childhood traumas.
Stone punctuates the personal with the particulars of the emerging economic crisis that makes everybody slightly more desperate, mean and venal in trying to ascertain motives, actions and behavior. Working with the great Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Stone retains his sharp, even hypnotic feel for the visual detail and dazzling surfaces.
The movie has a colorful, sharp density. Moving seamlessly from trading rooms, sleek corporate offices or imposing Manhattan homes, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is certainly never dull. Kristi Zea’s intelligent production design is also something to behold.
The ending, at once soft and unsatisfying, seems awfully compromised and too withholding by half to register the necessary shock to the system or emotional surprise. These are characters worth returning to. One just wishes, quoting Gertrude Stein, there were more there there.