Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

September 30, 2010

In some ways, I appreciate Oliver Stone’s turn from a confrontational rabble-rouser to a softer, more contemplative political director.  Not to say he’s terribly successful at the latter, but there’s something admirable in his ability not to turn his George W. Bush biopic into a polemic, and likewise in his Wall Street sequel to not go after banks and trading companies all-guns-blazing.  It’s as though he’s living out that old cliché of the once-raging lefty who gets worn down by time until he looks at the younger ‘rebels’ and smiles with knowing affection at their gumption and vigor, but knows somewhere inside knows it’s a fools game.  Unfortunately it hasn’t made him a very interesting director, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleep’s problems stem from an unfocused, unsure desire to be a decidedly populist yarn about conventional family issues and doing the ‘right’ (in a very broad, centrist way) thing.  I won’t take issue with the movie that could have been, because that’s not what’s here.  I think a gritty drama about money, greed, corporate desperation, and backroom dealings at The Fed could be interesting, but alas, that film has not been made yet.

Stone seems to have been surprised by the effect the original Wall Street had on the people he meant to skewer.  It was timely, to be sure, but if he wanted to tell a story about glamorous but greedy capitalists ripping apart the lives of hardworking Americans, he probably should have realized how people would only pay attention to the “glamorous” part.  The most culturally resonant aspect of that film was Michael Douglas’ portrayal of Gordon Gekko, who stole the show (from Charlie Sheen, which is probably not an Oscar-worthy achievement in retrospect) with his cool delivery, cocksure attitude, and clever lines.  Apparently viewed as an aspirational figure among the denizens of the real Wall Street, Stone should never have underestimated the appeal of an anti-hero.  He makes no such mistake in the sequel, where there is barely an attempt to condemn the glamour, money, and excitement of Big Finance.  The camera floats lovingly around the city, admiring the steel and glass sheen of its skyscrapers.  Shots dwell on the jewelry and the superbikes of the rich. The frame glories at the sleek modern apartments (indeed, only Brolin’s one-dimensional villain’s office comes across as stale in its outdated notions of expensive extravagance).

Taking a cue from the first film, the main character, Jacob, is played by a milky, dull young actor (Shia LaBeouf), so Gekko can’t be outshone.  He’s engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie, played by Carey Mulligan (who pulls off the over-sized white button up shirt in the morning look better than anyone since 1987), and he now feels he must use Gekko’s expertise to avenge his recently deceased boss and navigate the troubled waters of a financial sector on the brink of collapse.  In order to do this, he must reunite Winnie and Gordon without her knowing, which essentially makes the crux of the plot no better than a below average teen rom-com.  For what it’s worth, the first hour is fairly entertaining.  Frank Langella is excellent as Jacob’s doomed boss, played as the wistful old professional who just doesn’t have it in him anymore, and then heightened to match the broad strokes of the melodramatic narrative.  There’s also a zippy sequence where Jacob uses his knowledge of the markets and his social contacts to artificially weaken a stock, where split screen and stock-ticker animations are judiciously employed to give it a sense of urgency and fun.  Because yes, like that old adage about war films, movies will always have a tough time making frantic stock trading look horrible and dull, no matter how morally repugnant the practices are.

Of course, the real juice is saved for Douglas’ return as Gekko.  Now I know he has to be magnetic and exciting, because the plot hinges on Jacob’s fascination with him, but instead of going for a tale of possible redemption, Stone chooses to turn him into Hannibal Lecter.  He’s effortlessly watchable, he always knows the right thing to say, and there is never a single moment where you don’t think that he knows exactly what he’s doing.  If his presence overwhelmed the first film, Stone is going to fight it this time around.  Despite the reverence paid to the character, he can’t save the second half of the film, which descends into the rather boring dealings with Winnie and her trust fund and finally an ending which would have been unthinkably pat and cozy two hours before but by the time it arrives, it isn’t surprising in the least.

In the end, Stone and his screenwriters (credited to Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff) have come up with a bland plot that they’ve hastily and uncomfortably grafted onto a real world crisis.  The periodic establishing shots with falling stock graphs outlining the financial sectors of New York and London have little to do with the story, but instead exist only to remind us that something truly disastrous is happening around the characters though not necessarily to them.  If there’s any moral to the story, it seems to be that investing in clean energy companies is the way forward, and perhaps tangentially that leftist bloggers will do the job the bought-out, mainstream media can’t.  If there’s one moment of honest criticism of the world of high finance, it comes with Charlie Sheen’s cameo as Bud Fox.  The once humbled stock trader, who grew a conscience and sold out his mentor after being hauled out of his office in cuffs (and tears), has rebounded in the last two decades.  Smarmy as ever, he’s got a woman on each arm and is more successful than ever.  A greedy, materialistic stockbroker might have a moment of humanity, but he’ll inevitably be lured back in by the wealth and glamour.  A leopard can’t change its spots, the scorpion will always stab the frog, and an asshole will always be an asshole.


P.S. In what must be a misguided attempt to stay true to the original’s roots while updating it for the modern era, Stone relies heavily on the David Byrne and Brian Eno album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.  The songs are woefully inappropriate for the tone of the film and call attention to themselves in the worst possible way.  However, don’t let that put you off the music.  It actually is a really good album.

3 Responses to “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”

  1. Great writing. Simply put with no thesaurus choked bravado. A cohesive course of thought and opinion. It flows.

  2. chiaroscurocoalition Says:

    Why thank you, good sir. The trick is to have a limited vocabulary!

  3. James C. Says:

    I agree with that Futurist fellow.

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