CANNES, France — Addressing reporters at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday, filmmaker Oliver Stone was rattling off a series of facts and figures about the contemporary banking industry when he almost seemed to catch himself in his own wonkishess.
“It’s gigantic subject matter, but it’s documentary subject matter,” Stone said about some of the themes running through “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” the follow-up to his era-defining hit that uses the recent financial meltdown as a backdrop for his conflicted characters. “You have to find that balance between the story of these people and the economics of the collapse.”
With a screenplay by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” which premiered this past weekend in Cannes to mixed but mostly favorable reviews, is perhaps the most anomalous star-driven movie to be released in years. On one level, it’s a studio sequel featuring both built-in brand recognition and actors who can lure filmgoers 30 and younger.
But the Fox film is also a serious movie about heady topics — the perils of greed, the intersection of money and family and even coneheaded subjects such as government bailouts and credit-default swaps. If a CNBC producer tried to write a Greek tragedy, it would look something like this film.
“The studios don’t make many movies like this,” says star Michael Douglas, speaking of a project that had been developed for years but was jump-started by the 2008 financial crash.
But this paradox raises a key question: Can a film at once serve as a policy document and commercial entertainment?
Released in 1987 and set in the era of go-go trading and corporate raiding, the original “Wall Street” told of a brash young trader named Bud Cox (Charlie Sheen), unctuous kingpin Gordon Gekko (Douglas, who won a best-actor Oscar) and the scheming that culminates in Cox doing the right thing and Gekko being sent to jail for his sins. Gekko’s trademark line, “Greed is good,” was intended as a sly comment on the excesses of the era, although to many, the phrase, as well as the movie itself, was taken as a glamorization of that world.
The new film starts with Gekko’s 2001 release from jail, before flashing forward seven years to an elaborate plot involving a young trader named Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Moore has (some) scruples but is rising in a world that just happens to be collapsing as investment banks run by Louis Zabel and Bretton James (Frank Langella and Josh Brolin) teeter under the weight of the 2008 financial crisis.
The story increasingly weaves in Gekko — who also happens to be the father of Moore’s fiancee (Carey Mulligan) — and who may be seeking either redemption or something more ominous.
In being given the chance to make a sequel, Stone has been granted a kind of filmmaking mulligan — a chance to update a movie that might otherwise seem dated in today’s ever-more-treacherous financial world.
As both he and Douglas note, much of the traders’ criminal activity from the first film is now quasi-legal. Stone, who like the others was speaking from a balcony overlooking the French Riviera at the uber-elegant Hotel du Cap — the very place that Gordon Gekko himself might vacation — explained the impetus for the new film as: “I showed the madness of the free-market experiment in 1987, but I think now we reached the end of that experiment.”
At the same time, the movie — for what its principals say are reasons of accuracy as well as audience sympathy — can’t go too far in turning the Wall Street moguls into monsters.
“It’s really easy to just look at the big picture and say, ‘Oh, wow, there are people not eating and Lloyd Blankfein is getting a $100-million bonus?’” LaBeouf says. “And then you meet a man like George Soros and your opinion changes. You meet a (Warren) Buffett or a (Paul) Volcker, and you see these are good men who have scruples, who are disciplined, who think there’s more to it than just a dollar. “
Originally scheduled for an April release — it would have coincided almost exactly with news of the government’s fraud lawsuit against Goldman Sachs — “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” will now hit theaters Sept. 24, a shift designed to allow the movie a splashy premiere in Cannes. But Stone and Douglas say they believe there will be plenty in the upcoming news to fuel interest in the film even in the fall.
The balance between the news and fictional drama can be a delicate one, and few understand that better than Stone.
At 63, newly married and with young children, the famously hard-nosed director is said by many of his stars to have mellowed, even as both his interviews and his films (he also is set to release “South of the Border,” about South American leaders) suggest a man still tangling with all manner of political and social topics. During an interview, he moves between disbelieving jibes about the hypocrisies of the business sector and the intricacies of the U.S. electoral system.
That may all add up to an eat-your-vegetables message not consonant with how most A-list studio movies are promoted. But the film toys with a simple, uplifting idea at the film’s conclusion: that even snakes can shed their skin.
“There’s no question the system is oppressive. (But) people need hope,” Stone says. “I don’t like cynical endings. I choose to believe Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t get eaten by the wolf.”
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