Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach
Running Time: 133 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Don't count me among those who thought it was a terrible idea for Oliver Stone to make a sequel to Wall Street over 20 years after its release, but for whatever reason, a lot of people seemed to think it was. In my mind there are few greater thrills than catching up with a memorable movie character decades later and finding out what they're up to. How many times has a film ended and you wonder what happened to the key players after the credits rolled? In many cases it's better to just not know and leave it alone, but sometimes you just can't resist because there's more story there. Gordon Gekko, the role that won Michael Douglas his 1987 Best Actor Oscar, is one of those rare exceptions where we just need to know, even at the risk of shattering our perceptions of a film that was always meant to be trapped in its own time period anyway. No one can convince me that the idea of dropping him in the midst of 2008's economic collapse has no dramatic value and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a sequel that lives and dies on Douglas' supporting performance. The big draw is finding out what happened to Gekko and how one of our greatest actors will re-interpret his most iconic role. Everything else is just gravy. Featuring a hammy central storyline, the film lacks the bite of the original, but we knew it would. This is more a human, emotional drama very much unlike the corporate thriller its predecessor was. It's slicker and more calculated, but still works in its own way.

The film cleverly opens with Gordon Gekko (Douglas) collecting his belongings (which hilariously includes a relic 80's cell phone) before being released from prison in 2001 after serving an eight year sentence for insider trading and securities fraud. No one's waiting for him when he gets out. We flash forward seven years and Gekko's now a best-selling author and lecturer, all over television promoting his new book, "Is Greed Good?" which puts a new spin on his famous catchphrase. His sudden re-emergence grabs the attention of Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a trader at Wall Street investment bank Keller Zabel and boyfriend of Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), an idealistic political blogger who's inherited none of her father's ruthlessness and still blames him for her brother's death. But when Jake's boss and longtime mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) finds his company on the brink of collapse due to vicious rumors and takes his own life, Jake knows whose help he needs. He makes a trade, promising Gekko a reconciliation with his daughter if he can help bring down rival CEO Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the man Jake suspects is responsible for it all.

There are two intertwined stories being told here, one a lot more interesting than the other. The Wall Street power struggle is old hat, just an excuse to bring Gekko back into the picture in a meaningful way and act as a backdrop. That plot is needlessly complicated, bogged down by business jargon and a villain is so cartoonishly over-the-top I half expected to him to grow a mustache just so he could twirl it. But for what needs to be accomplished from a goofy entertainment standpoint it works even if I found myself wishing less time were spent on those details and more on the re-entry of a seemingly more humbled Gekko into society after personally and professionally paying the price for his crimes. Jail has mellowed him, changing his outlook on things and the most fascinating aspect of the character is how Douglas puts on all these different masks to reveal varying shades of Gekko's personality when he's around certain people. A mellowed business titan dispensing sage wisdom as a lecturer. A cutthroat schemer advising Jake. and a pathetically inept father still cleaning up his messes in attempting to earn Winnie's trust. He makes it clear why Winnie wouldn't ever be able to trust him and feels betrayed Jake would even attempt to. The more reversals the plot takes the more appreciation you build up scene-by-scene for what Douglas does to adapt and add even more layers to his original creation.

At first glance the casting of LaBeouf as the protagonist would seem to be a miscalculation, but youth and inexperience count in his favor with the character's early success being explained away with him having the right connections. Given Shia's recent Indy 4 track record I was skeptical, but he brings his "A" game as a young broker green enough to be taken advantage of by the heavy hitters but still confident and determined enough to put up a fight to get what he wants. His role is absolutely huge, asked to carry every scene in the picture and he responds better than anyone could have suspected. Whatever issues there are with the film definitely don't fall on him or his chemistry with Douglas or Carey Mulligan. Good luck finding an actress working today who possesses a lovelier, more natural onscreen presence and I can't say it's wasted at all in this emotional role, which wouldn't have amounted to nearly as much had anyone else been given it.

As James, Josh Brolin's stuck as your typical stock villain but since he's Brolin and looks to be having such a blast playing it, we hardly notice or care. Speaking of having a blast, the unfortunate timing of Charlie Sheen's cameo (reprising his role of Bud Fox from the original), whether by design or not, does more to shine the spotlight on Sheen's celebrity reputation than the character and earns unintentional giggles above all else. Maybe a fun moment, but it should have been left on the cutting room floor as it turns his experience with Gekko years ago into a cheap punchline. Sporting a convincing Long Island accent, Susan Sarandon makes a few brief, but meorable appearances as Jake's mother, a real estate agent in over her head financially along with everyone else. The best creative addition Stone makes is musical, recruiting rock legend David Byrne of The Talking Heads' (whose song "This Must Be The Place" was featured in the first film and reappears here) to provide the soundtrack, which strangely fits the tone of this movie like a glove and feels like a major character.

Many will accuse Stone of wimping out with the ending and he does to an extent but you'd have to be pretty glum to wish for the finale we come close to receiving. That said, Stone carries things on a about a scene or two longer than he should when a more ambiguous final act would have served the story better and driven the point home harder, or at least given us more to think about. The wrap-up's a little too tidy for characters complicated enough to deserve better, especially Gekko. Continuing the action past that point and even through the closing credits (in a particularly befuddling sequence) was an ill advised choice, but doesn't really harm the overall integrity of the film. Anyone going into Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps expecting another Wall Street will feel let down. As it should be, this is far different since over two decades have passed and that movie couldn't be made today, nor would we need it to be. As much as the original stands as timepiece for 80's greed and excess this sequel provides a compelling, if Hollywoodized, snapshot of the recent economic collapse, but more interestingly allows us a glimpse into what one of our most memorable movie characters would have to say about it.

1 comment:

Ben K said...

Excellent review that is right on the money about this film.