A film review by Craig J. Koban October 2, 2010


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

Directed by Oliver Stone/ Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff

“You’re fucked.” 

So 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.” 

Now…many 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.   

It 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 business 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.  



Gekko 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.   

Jake 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. 

WALL 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.   

Here’s 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. 

The 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. 

Stone 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. 

The 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. 

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