Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (**1/2)

Directed by Oliver Stone


When Gordon Gekko first appeared in 1987's Wall Street, his silky charm mixed with his snake-like, coldblooded nature fascinated audiences to the tune of an Academy Award for Michael Douglas, the man who played the infamous Gekko like Pat Riley with a blue streak. In a lot of ways, the film was a warning to the greedy suits staring at stock markets in New York City. Come 2010, their greed has cost us much more then it probably cost them. I don't know if Oliver Stone figured that his film had that sort of foresight, or if it was more of a stage for Douglas to dance with charm. Either way, the film made such an impact that they decided that a sequel was in order... twenty-three years later.

In 2001, Gekko (Douglas) is at the end of his eight-year prison term and by this time, he has no one to pick him up as he makes his way towards freedom. With nothing but a few gold watches and a mobile phone the size of a satellite, Gekko stands with scruff on his face and bitterness in his eyes as he's forced to take a cab on the way out of jail. Fast forward to 2008, and Gekko has decided to publish his financial advice book, "Is Greed Good?". He's headlining book signings and making speeches at colleges, marketing himself as a reformed sinner come to warn everyone about economic doom that is just around the corner. An economic doom that exists because of the very society of financial impropriety that he was at the center of two decades ago. In times of panic, people turn to strange advisers, and with the stock market sinking, Gekko is allowed to speak in front of hundreds of accounting students as a man of wisdom.

Gordon catches the eye of the new, young Wall Street hotshot Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf), who specializes in alternative energy. Jake is the protege of the veteran, disgruntled investment banker Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Zabel gives Jake a $1.4 million bonus, days before his bank goes down the toilet. In a moment of complete vulnerability, Zabel is forced to sell to monolithic rival banker Bretton James (Josh Brolin - who plays the part with Gekko-like ruthlessness) for pennies on the dollar. The presence of the failure so large causes Zabel to throw himself in front of a subway train. The bank was sunk because of anonymous, incriminating rumors spread throughout the financial district (where, we learn, gossip flies faster then a sewing circle). The rumors are almost directly connected to Bretton James, and Jake instantly sees the man as a villain.

He soon finds that his distaste with Bretton is shared by Gordon Gekko. But there's a wrinkle in Jake's curiosity with Gekko, and that is that he's engaged to his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake approaches Gekko after one of his many school speeches and is able to get a private conversation with him after he mentions the engagement. Gekko admits that it was Bretton's slimy admissions that caused him to go to prison for eight years, and he agrees to help Jake take Bretton down, if he also helps him re-establish his relationship with Winnie. Jake is able to get in with Bretton pretty quickly, but getting Winnie to reconnect with her father turns out to be trickier. She has no trust for him and is convinced that he'll find a way to hurt the both of them, but Jake is unconvinced, sure that prison has changed Gekko for the better. As Jake gets deeper with Bretton, Gekko comes closer to Winnie, but no one's intentions are as ideal as they seem and everything soon bursts as the lies are exposed.

When you consider that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a sequel twenty years removed from its original - which in of itself is a pretty dated 80's movie - the film is actually rather amiable. Douglas gives his best performance in close to a decade, obviously refreshed by reprising his Oscar-winning role. He's got Gekko down pat, letting the squealing ruthlessness always be prevalent underneath the austere slickness. LeBeouf is very capable as the film's main protagonist, and is exceptionally better here then Charlie Sheen was as the focus of the first Wall Street (and right on cue, Sheen does make a small cameo as his character, Bud Fox, just in case we were all wondering what he was doing these days). With its good cast, the film is able to take full advantage of their talent, since their performances fully outperform the screenplay that they speak through.

I admit that I have a prejudice with films like these, since I know close to nothing about financials and when the film goes on long stretches explaining the so called nuances of the stock market and the economy, I tune out. There are still certain concepts within this film that I'm still not sure I truly understand, and that is not the film's fault. What is the film's fault is its incessant need to be topical. Oliver Stone jumps at the opportunity to capture the moment of a downfall that he doesn't totally stop to think about whether or not his methods and metaphors are a bit too heavy-handed. This is particularly true about a ridiculously obvious motif involving children and bubble makers, and I'll just leave you with the suspense on that one.

But I guess that's the way Stone tells stories, and that is why I barely enjoy any of his films (with the big exception of Platoon). It's a shame because Stone's overwrought techniques really undermine what is actually a relatively fine film. There's a carousel of entertaining supporting performances from Mulligan, Brolin, as well as Susan Surandon and Eli Wallach (who I'm pretty sure has died twenty years ago - his corpse is getting all the work, now). If I'd worked at a movie studio, I'm not sure I would even endorse a sequel to Wall Street, since I'm not sure how big of an impact its really had outside of style and snazzy movie quotes. But alas, I don't get paid to make those kind of decisions, and that's probably for the better. Whether or not greed is good, there's plenty of it in movie making these days.

No comments: