A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2010
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS
2010, PG-13, 130 mins.
2010, PG-13, 130 mins.
Michael Douglas: Gordon Gekko / Shia LaBeouf: Jake Moore / Carey
Mulligan: Winnie Gekko / Josh Brolin: Bretton James / Frank
Langella: Louis Zabel / Susan Sarandon: Sylvia
utters Gordon Gekko during a lecture to a jam-packed college auditorium in
an early scene in WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS.
It is 2008 and he is the author of a best selling book called IS
GREED GOOD?, which is primarily the subject of his lecture tour.
It is the eve of one of the biggest financial crashes in American
history and Gekko’s ominous words serve as a warning to the spectators,
not to mention a damning indictment of how rampant and unchecked greed as
well as unrestrained financial speculation is leading to a widespread
economic cataclysm. The
largest concern that he relays to his listeners is that everyone seems
euphoric and overly optimistic about the current financial bubble.
Someone once reminded me,” he refrains, “that I once said
‘greed is good.' Now it
seems legal. Because everyone
is drinking the same Kool Aid.”
of you may be saying, “Hold on a sec…this is Gordon Gekko,
right?” Yes, this is same Gekko portrayed in an iconic performance
by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film WALL STREET.
That film – one of Stone’s most undervalued and skillfully
restrained efforts – was one of the defining pictures of
its decade, and one that still resonates to today’s audiences.
It also ushered in Douglas’ Gekko (a role that nabbed him a much
deserved Best Actor Oscar) as one of the most charismatically villainous
and sleekly conniving of all movie antagonists.
He was not a black and white baddie in the generic sense, but what
made Gekko so supremely and, yes, deliciously evil was his survival
of the economic fittest mantra of life: it does not matter who you step
on to make a fortune. He was
a corporate/businessman-pirate and a symbol of the type of immoral,
duplicitous, and oily financial corruption that predicated the stock
market crash of the late 80’s and, to be sure, the type of malfeasance
that led to our current recession.
was his sinful “greed is good” cutthroat philosophy that showed us how
real-life millionaire criminals like him were messing with other
peoples’ money while making themselves incalculably rich.
His character – and the film he occupied itself – served
as a wake up call to the cynical financial culture and the excesses of
corporate America, a climate that made the rich richer, the poor even
poorer and unavoidably brought the country to its knees.
What is even more shocking – if you watch WALL STREET within
a bubble of the present and well after its initial release – is how many
crooks it unintentionally spawned, those that looked up to Gekko as
a perverted role model of sorts. Anyone doubting this needs to look no further than our recent
economic woes: the crash occurred because of a whole new breed of Gekkos.
Yet…hang on…this is the same infamous Gekko that now occupies Stone’s sequel film, and it now appears that he is far removed from the man that would go to any level to cash in on the misfortunes of others. The film begins in New York in 2001 where Gekko (still played with a relish and wily panache by Douglas) has just been released from an 8-year prison sentence for all of his misdeeds that he committed in the prequel film, but when he is released he finds himself alone with no one. Six years later Gekko triumphantly remerges as an apparently redeemed citizen and financial author that tries to make sense of all of the financial craziness that exists in the world, not to mention that he tries to serve as a voice of reason to Wall Street with an economic bust looming on the horizon. If there were anyone that has the inside goods on why another economic crisis will unavoidably occur than it certainly is him.
has more plans to make his rehabilitation complete: He desperately yearns
to mend a long estranged relationship with his daughter, Winnie (AN
EDUCATION’s exquisitely poised and assured Carrie Mulligan), but
she despises the man her father became and hated him even more when he
went to prison. Complications ensue when Winnie’s fiancé, Jake Moore (Shia
LaBeouf) begins to take an interest in her father. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that he is a
tenaciously ambitious stock broker that looks up to Gekko, but more
because he legitimately wants his future father-in-law and his wife-to-be
to get along and burry the past.
has other issues: His boss,
Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, terrific in a regrettably brief performance)
is the head of a firm that begins to see its financial future unravel with
the high number of toxic mortgages they have undertaken.
Even worse is that Zabel’s arch business nemesis, Bretton James
(Josh Brolin, having fun while oozing moustache-twirling villainy) wants
to take over Zabel’s firm with a stock offer that’s a borderline
insult. Zabel lamentably
succumbs to James' takeover bid, but the pressure and humiliation leads
to his suicide. Jake is
devastated and believes that James is ultimately to blame and plots
revenge and becomes assisted, so to speak, from Gekko himself, whom he has
secretly (behind Winnie’s back) formed an alliance with. Gekko has a score to settle with Bretton as well (he
apparently was instrumental in sending Gekko to prison) and offers to help
Jake in his plan to avenge his former boss…but only if Jake can get
Winnie to rekindle a normal family relationship with him.
The more Jake and Winnie attempt to get close to “Gordo” the
more it becomes apparent that he has other ulterior plans beyond
screwing over James and mending his fragile daughter issues.
STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS does what good sequels should, which is to say
that it takes pre-existing material established in the prequel film and
expands and advances it in refreshing ways to make it feel new. It would have been easy to regurgitate Gekko and make another
film about him wreaking havoc on the 21st Century financial world as he
did in the 80’s, but what Stone and his screenwriters, Bryan Burrough,
Stephen Schiff, and Allan Loeb (the latter a real life licensed stock
broker) do is infinitely more compelling: they make Gekko – at least at
face value – the moral center and hero of the film.
Even though the film tantalizes us with three overriding story arcs
(Gekko’s rehabilitation outside of prison, Jake’s home life and work
life, and the backstage politics of the 2008 stock market crash), the most
intrinsically fascinating hook is how it observes Gekko’s fundamental
changes since the last film.
the question: Is he really a hero or is he still a lecherous heel
only looking out for himself? I
will labor not to spoil the reveal that the film has to offer, but I will
say that Stone and Douglas shape Gekko as an equally magnetic and crafty
screen presence as he was decades ago, and Douglas exultantly slips back
into his most legendary screen character with sleek ease.
He is still fearsomely intelligent, well spoken, and a disarmingly
dashing presence, even when it appears that his motives may or may
not be pure. He emerges
as neither the hero or the villain. He’s
heroic in the sense that he seems to legitimately want to ensure that the
forthcoming financial implosion will not occur, not to mention that he
wants his daughter back in his life and wishes to see corporate scum like
James revealed for who he is and what he represents.
Yet, there still remains an unpredictable aura of self-interest to
Gekko: the film shows him as a man with noble imperatives that may just be
a means to an end to get what he ultimately wants. For those reasons, WALL STREET: NEVER MONEY SLEEPS keeps the
viewer off-center and guessing, which allows it to rise above the
mediocrity that accompanies many run-of-the-mill sequels.
This sequel wants to explore new terrain and does just that.
film is laced with juicy performances framed around Douglas, and Stone has
always been known as a great actors-director.
LaBeouf brings a cocky edge alongside a soulful sincerity to his
role and Mulligan does miraculous wonders playing what could have been a
one-note victimized wife/daughter role that sees herself caught between social
forces beyond her control (her scenes with Douglas are the emotional
highlights of the film). Brolin – fresh from playing the lead role in Stone’s last
film, W. – carves out a infectiously dishonorable
and smarmy antagonist that we love to hate.
Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella, and Eli Wallach all make dependably
strong and memorable cameos as well.
also creates a film with a consummate visual polish: Alongside his
cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, Stone makes slick, but unobtrusive,
usage of split screens and stock market graphics to ground viewers into
the rapid fire paced and fast talking world of Wall Street money
management. Stone is also
good at creating a sense of credible atmosphere and a strong evocation of fiction
morphed within the larger framework of recent history.
If there were to be a nitpick with Stone here then it would be that
his film is not as incisive and angry as its antecedent.
It offers up the theme that the calamitous influence of the
corporate raiders of the past have not changed at all and have led to lead
to even more financial instability, but beyond that Stone does not do too much
thoughtful sermonizing. Considering
that he has a reputation for being one of the most political savvy
filmmakers of his generation, it’s a bit of a letdown that he does not
have more to say with WALL STREET 2.
film has other problems, like, for example, when it comes to explaining
details (why would Winnie, who is utterly ashamed of her father, shack up
and get close with a young man that is in the same profession that her dad
was a part of years ago?). The
film also is a bit of a soft pedaled affair, especially when it comes to a
conclusion that not only comes off as incredibly contrived, but too
convenient and maudlin to be believed.
The first WALL STREET film had a dangerous edge to its material
that felt scarily real and prophetic in hindsight; by comparisons, its
sequel is certainly not an ominous zeitgeist effort of equal longstanding
merit. Yet, WALL STREET:
MONEY NEVER SLEEPS offers up an incredible cast at the top of their game,
an Oliver Stone that still knows how to make a fairly polished and elegant
looking film, and, for sure, it has Michael Douglas joyously reprising the
role of one of the great movie villains that has captivatingly become the
good guy, but not too good. This
is, after all, Gordon Gekko, and he still, after all of these
years, knows how to “play the game” for his own enigmatic purposes.