Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon
(Fox; US theatrical: 24 Sep 2010 (General release); 2010)
Would the real Oliver Stone please stand up? - or at the very least, come out of the mediocre mainstream moviemaking shell he’s been hiding in for a little over a decade. Every since 1999’s Any Given Sunday, the onetime agent provocateur of such brilliant politico-social dissertations as JFK, Nixon, and Born on the Fourth of July has instead been cashing a regular journeyman’s paycheck. Oh sure, he courted some minor controversy with his less than critical take on George W. , but for the most part, his recent films have been a slight, superficial shadow of his former angry young man self. Nowhere is this truer than in his first ever sequel, a follow-up to his fascinating if flawed 1987 hit Wall Street. This time around, however, while money supposedly never sleeps, the audience will have a hard time avoiding such a state.
You see, nothing kills a classic character quicker than reinventing him as a pseudo-warm and fuzzy combination of doom saying “I told you so” prophet and desperate, disconnect ex-con dad - and yet that is exactly where we pick up with the original film’s fascinating anti-hero, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Fresh out of eight years in the joint and ready to warn the world of the upcoming speculation “bubble”, he zones in on former adversary and current money market hedge fund jockey Bretton James (Josh Brolin) . Complicit in his past crimes but also willing to cut a deal with the Feds, Gekko needs to see this man pay. He also wants a powwow with his idealistic daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Ever since the death of her brother, she has avoided all association with her family - including her infamous father.
Luckily, plot crux Jacob “Jake” Moore (Shia LaBeouf) shows up to answer both of our aging icons prayers. He is engaged to Winnie, and also wants to undermine James after watching his own mentor - beloved industry curmudgeon Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella) - buy the proverbial financial disaster farm. As the men fight over merger acquisitions and no risk mortgages, a secret trust fund is discovered, alternative energy is debated, and an attempt at redemption is thwarted by mechanical narrative twists and ridiculously pat character turns. By the end, not only are you are convinced that greed it clearly no good, it’s post-millennial crash cousin is no day at the banker’s beach either.
Frankly, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is the kind of movie Stone could set-up in his sleep…and a lot of the time, it looks like he did. Actually, the entire concept was better when it was called Capitalism: A Love Story. In that provocative documentary, Michael Moore had the audacity to name names, out idiocy, and more or less point the finger at EVERYONE involved - from the McMansion owners to the morons who loaned them the now worthless no money down paper. Here, Stone is fixated on his old skyscraping strategies, men clouded in an aura of deregulation legitimacy that is hard to reconcile. On the one hand, these tailor suited fat cats are wheeling and dealing like rejects from a ‘70s game show. On the other, they have the full faith and line of credit from none other than Uncle Sam. Somewhere in the middle a more sinister, soulless truth exists. Stone, sadly, is not interested in exploring said ethos.
Instead, it’s camera tricks and split screen silliness that reminds us of why certain stylistic choices died decades ago. Even with Douglas back at the center, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps can’t help but feel like a glorified gimmick. It’s surprising it wasn’t shot in 3D. Back when a Harvard MBA meant true king of the universe status, Gekko’s slicked back hairdo was a symbol of success. Today, it’s a shaggy dog story without the mutt. Much of this character’s purpose comes from his outward appearance. Stone makes it very clear that Gekko has aged, can no longer pull off the Pat Reilly swagger with ease, and that a clear bout of incarcerated mid life crisis has him unconsciously pining away for a regular family life. Indeed, like most Hollywood pabulum, biology and the promise of gifts of Grandparent’s Day has our monetary master blubbering like an infant.
Unfortunately, Gekko is not the only thing wrong here (in more than one way). Shia LaBeouf is an absolutely cipher in the role of Jake. He’s all misty eyed drive and convenient naiveté - nothing else. When Zabel hands him an early bonus of $1.4 million, he doesn’t question the corporate circumstance that allows such a personal luxury. Instead, he pisses the money away like a rapper with a royalty check. Even worse, the ‘playa’ wants to walk the fine line between saving the world and raping its available workforce. When he discovers how Gekko has manipulated him, his pained expressions are almost laughable. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps needed a ballsier, Bud Fox-ian figure at its core. What we get here instead is a whelp with an overpriced lifestyle.
Then there is the actual ‘villain’. Josh Brolin was excellent in No Country for Old Men and as a former sitting President for Stone. But here, it’s more a case of Jonah Hex than Dan White. James is all accessories - priceless paintings, antiquated officer decor, high power cliques - and yet he never gets a good line of despotic dialogue. The original Wall Street built its reputation on Gekko’s given on the value in avarice. In the sequel, James delivers nothing that as remotely meaningful or memorable. Instead, he glares a great deal and scoffs at those who threaten his position of power. When taken down, he too turns into a whiny little wuss. That just leaves Carey Mulligan to do all the heavy lifting, and while capable, she’s nothing more than a story goal.
Still, for all its many failings, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a timely tale told in a somewhat engaging manner. We may not care a lick about what happens to these credit card sharps and their various collateral damage, but do get a kick out of seeing Stone try to make mountains out of the already mile high molehills laying around the current economy. While one imagines the practiced pot stirring could have really have whipped up quite a lather here, he’s apparently saving that for his upcoming series on the Secret History of America. Maybe with said showcase he can return to the Oliver Stone we’ve grown to admire and admonish. With this unnecessary revisit, he’s simply an auteur treading water.