Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
December 22, 2010
It has been over 20 years since Wall Street (1987) was released in theaters and, at the time, it was blamed for cashing in on the stock market crash that wiped out more than a few people’s fortunes. The financial landscape has changed radically since then and so, in many ways, has Oliver Stone’s career. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was on an unbelievable roll, cranking out controversial, headline-grabbing films like Platoon (1986), JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994). And then he made Nixon (1995), arguably his most ambitious and complex (both stylistically and content-wise) film to date – critics were divided and audiences failed to show up.
Stone continued to plug along gamely but after his long-time director of photography Robert Richardson left after the neo-noir oddity U-Turn (1997), the director lost his most important creative collaborator. Any Given Sunday (1999) was an energetic if not flawed expose of professional American football and well, let’s just say that the 2000s have not been kind to him (see Alexander, World Trade Center and W.). With the release of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), there’s a glimmer of hope that this new project might be a return to form for the auteur. He’s never done a sequel before but with how radically the financial world has changed since 9/11 it is an intriguing prospect to see what a character like Gordon Gekko would be doing now. With recent scandals like Enron and Dow Jones meltdown in 2008, a Wall Street sequel is very timely.
It’s 2001 and Gordon Gekko (Douglas) has been released from prison. There’s no one to pick him up and instead he’s handed a check for $1,800 and a train ticket. Seven years later, he’s peddling a book, Is Greed Good? and trying to get back into the game. Meanwhile, Jacob “Jake” Moore (LaBeouf) is a young and ambitious proprietary trader working Keller Zabel. This whiz kid is trying to develop an alternative energy project. Stone immerses us in the trading floor and boy, does it look different than it did back in 1987. The technology, obviously, is vastly different but the frenetic energy is still the same. Jake is living with and engaged to a beautiful young woman named Winnie (Mulligan) who is an Internet journalist working for a liberal-minded website. Oh yeah, her estranged father just happens to be Gekko, much to her chagrin.
When Jake’s investment firm’s stock takes a major hit, his distraught and disillusioned mentor Lewis Zabel (Langella) is pushed out of the company by ruthless hedge fund manager Bretton James (Brolin). Devastated and humiliated, Zabel takes his own life. Jake goes to see Gekko speak and is impressed by what the man has to say. Maybe he’s found a new mentor. Afterwards, Jake meets Gekko and tells him about his plans to marry Winnie. They strike a deal: Jake will help Gekko reconcile with his daughter and in return Gekko will help Jake exact some payback on James, the man who sent Zabel over the edge.
With Gekko’s help, Jake does some digging and spreads a few rumors that cause Churchill Schwartz, the company that James works for, to take a notable hit. Impressed by what he did, James hires Jake because after all, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Jake naturally accepts as it brings him in close proximity to James so that he can ultimately bring him down. And like that, it’s on with Jake and James going after each other with Gekko as the wild card, begging the question, what is his stake in all this?
Shia LaBeouf, an actor known for mindless blockbusters (Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls) and generic thrillers (Disturbia and Eagle Eye), finally shows some actual acting chops in his first legitimate dramatic role that has him up against heavyweights like Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin and Frank Langella – guys that can really act. Being in their company forces LaBeouf to raise his game and he holds his own. This time around, it is LaBeouf who is the idealistic young man swimming with the sharks and in danger of being seduced by lots of money.
It is great to see Michael Douglas back in his most famous role and he slips back into it effortlessly. Gekko is as cagey as ever and like Jake we’re never quite sure what his true intentions are but one thing’s for sure, he’s not to be underestimated. And Douglas does a nice job hinting at the dangerous Gekko that lurks under his smiling façade. Gekko appears to want to make amends with his daughter but as we well know from the first film, he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve and with all the cunning of an exceptional card player.
The screenplay throws all kinds of financial jargon at the audience but it is all really window-dressing because all that matters is what it all means and Stone makes sure that we understand the bottom line. The dialogue still has some of the crackle and pop of the original film, especially in a good scene where Gekko and James spar verbally. If there is one glaring flaw in this film it is the overuse of David Byrne songs to the point of distraction. Each cue puts too fine a point on the scene with lyrics that spell out exactly what we are watching. Not to mention the songs are milquetoast drivel robbing the film of its fast-moving momentum at times. Also, the warm, cuddly vibe of the epilogue that plays over the closing credits has got to go. It shows Gekko in a way that just seems out of character and feels like Stone hedged his bets to give the audience a more palatable ending.
Stone does a good job of keeping things visually interesting but the cinematography lacks the energy and that special something that Robert Richardson brought to the first film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is easily the best film Stone’s done since Any Given Sunday. Of course, that’s not saying much but at least it feels like the kind of film Stone used to make back in his prime. There is a confidence that comes with being back on familiar turf that Stone displays with this film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is just the kind of film that he needs to reinvigorate his career and remind us why we regarded his films so highly in the first place.
There is an audio commentary by director Oliver Stone. He talks about the difference making the sequel vs. the original and how times have changed in-between. He also talks about how the business world has changed in the intervening years. The global economy changed so dramatically that Stone felt that the time was right to revisit this world and Gekko. Stone talks about working with the likes of Frank Langella and Shia LaBeouf and gives his impressions of them. The filmmaker delivers a solid, chatty track that takes us through the various aspects of production.
“Gordon Gekko is Back” is a featurette that examines the allure and the fascination with the character of Gekko. Film critics, Michael Douglas and Stone offer their two cents. Amazingly, instead of being seen as a villain, as was intended, many people were inspired to go into business because of Gekko.