Sunday, October 17, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Movie Review

The thing that has made Wall Street a cult classic was Gordon Gekko. Here was a villainwhose thirst for more money kew no bounds, not so much because he wanted more, but because he liked the thrill of the chase. An entire generation of Wall Street has pathetically modeled itself on his balls to the wall attitude toward finance. To take that character and water him down, give him pathos, provide him a reason to repent is not to capture the spirit of the original film, but to capture a wider audience and bigger box office return.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is once again directed by Oliver Stone, but penned by Allan Loeb (whose biggest previous credit is 21, to which he brought a similar fast paced youthful energy) and Stephen Schiff. The subject matter this time around is a widespread, far reaching financial meltdown that occurs in 2008 – the result of sub-prime toxic debts. If that sounds familiar it’s because the global financial system serendipitously ran into ruin just as Stone was preparing to make this sequel and decided to incorporate real events into the story.

Gekko (Michael Douglas reprising his Oscar-winning role), released from prison in 2001, having spent several years there after events which are meant to have taken place after the end of the first film, is now gray-haired and looking more worn out than when we last saw him. Seven years on he’s the author of a successful book and known and revered much as his character is in real life.

Meanwhile his daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), is about to become engaged to Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young Wall Street upstart who’s interested in green energy, not for any lefty liberal ideology, but because it’s the next financial bubble (just in case the metaphor isn’t clear enough, there are two shots in the film showing a child’s soap bubble floating up into the sky with the wind) and he wants a piece. Also he’s been working devotedly for Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), the head of a Lehman Brothers type investment bank that goes belly up. The other big banking heads, including Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the head of Churchill Schwartz (the fictionalized version of Goldman Sachs) and the U.S. Treasury Secretary refuse a rescue plan, driving Zabel to leap in front of a subway at rush hour.

Jake fails to read the signs properly, including a $1.45 million bonus given to him by Zabel the day before his firm crashes and burns, and takes the lion’s share of that money and dumps it into Zabel stock that is worthless before the close of business the next day.

LaBeouf is an earnestly intense actor, bringing exactly the same qualities to Jake as he has previously brought to Sam in Transformers and Mutt in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s capable of doing anything other than moving quickly, annunciating his lines with professional precision and looking handsome. On the other hand Carey Mulligan, a treasure of an acting discovery in her Oscar-nominated role in last year’s An Education, impressively builds her resume by making Winnie the most sympathetic character in the film. You have to ask yourself why the script wasn’t written to have Winnie be the central figure instead of Jake. Instead of a do-gooder with an online liberal newspaper the character might have been better served by having a Wall Street career, but conflicted by her connections to the infamous Gekko.

Like the first film, revenge is the motivating factor that drives the plot. Jake holds Bretton James responsible not only for the fall of Zabel’s firm, but for Zabel’s death. He gets his advice from Gordon, whom he approaches after listening to a lecture of his (which references the famous “greed is good” line) at Fordham. Jake has to see Gordon without Winnie’s knowledge because she holds her father responsible for the overdose death of her brother who had to grow up without fatherly guidance.

Gordon wants Jake’s help in reconciling with Winnie, saying that prison gave him a different perspective on life and that his priorities have changed. Is this the Gordon Gekko anyone really wants to see – a new squeaky clean old man filled with regret? The fact is this Gordon Gekko bears no resemblance to the Gekko who ran the tables around Bud Fox 23 years ago. Stone may have wanted to see how a prison stint and a modern financial crisis would affect Gekko, but really all he’s done is create a new character with the same name.

Trying to sift through the nitty-gritty details of all the financial details would require not only a degree in business or economics, but probably several years working in the field. I know most of it was incomprehensible to me. The story remains clear, but the glue that holds it together could be nonsense for all I know. Stone employs a good deal of flashy techniques, although not as much as he has in some other films, to fill out the montage sequences of the financial collapse. It’s dizzyingly fast with images of real life CNBC financial analysts spelling out the coming doomsday. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone told me that the majority of the footage was archival from the real collapse.

Stone and screenwriters Loeb and Schiff have chosen to focus on the relationship of father and child. Jake has a rocky relationship with his mother (Susan Sarandon), a former nurse turned real estate broker who has a habit of hitting up her son for loans of a couple hundred thousand, and bad memories of his deceased father. Zabel’s relationship with him was probably the most paternal connection he ever felt. Of course there’s Gordon, who lost his own son to drugs and is desperate to save a connection to the one family member he’s got left. And Jake gets a taste of impending fatherhood when Winnie winds up pregnant.

The story is well-paced and it’s interesting to wonder (and impossible not to, given his track record) if Gekko’s newfound paternalism and goodwill is a put on. Winnie does warn Jake that he will end up by hurting them both. But the movie finds itself finishing with a conclusion that is not well earned and comes out of deep left field. It is a trite and sugary ending unbefitting, a betrayal to, the Gordon Gekko we came to love all those years ago.

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