REVIEWED: WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS
October 9, 2010 Leave a comment
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is Oliver Stone’s third consecutive film that deals with a politically current event soon after it has taken place, this time cleaving right to the bone, given that the worldwide effects of the recession are still painfully abundantly. While his hit-and-miss World Trade Center became fatally entangled in portentous religious imagery, and his far superior W. would have fared a little better had it waited a year or so for that crucial post-office context, Stone’s sequel to the indelible and iconic Wall Street gets right most of what it does exactly because it is mired in the milieu as it happens. Though resolutely imperfect – at times painfully so – Money Never Sleeps wrings out some cracking performances and manages to be Stone’s most crowd-pleasingly polemical film in years.
Infamous insider trader Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is finally released from prison in 2001. Seven years later, yearning for the limelight once again, he releases a book entitled “Is Greed Good?”, with years behind bars having caused him to meditate on the dangers of unchecked greed. While Gekko was no doubt a greedy shark in his hey-day, he is a mere pawn in the present day’s world of government bail-outs and profits made against gigantic losses, and warns that a major financial catastrophe is imminent. Thus, when the inevitable cataclysm occurs (in the 2008 crisis), he decides to lend a helping hand with plucky upstart trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), though Jake’s romantic involvement with Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), threatens to derail everything.
Despite its dramatic flaws, Money Never Sleeps is nothing if not an intriguing companion piece to the 1987 original. Stone, quite possibly by complete accident, made a cult icon out of Douglas’ Gordon Gekko character to the point that Douglas is reportedly still told by stock traders that he was their inspiration to take upon the career. While in Wall Street, the high-flying, extravagant lifestyle that Gekko enjoyed and quite successfully pulled Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox into was fetishised, here it is presented as dangerous, imposing, and having wide-reaching implications for the very future of how money is used (Gekko cites the the potential danger of investment banking’s excesses as akin to the tulipomania madness of The Netherlands in the 17th century). The worldwide economic downturn is treated in this film like a tidal wave or an asteroid might be in a Roland Emmerich disaster film; it is the crux around which everything revolves, and with billions, even trillions of dollars up in the air, the fight for survival is no less treacherous.
The problem is that Stone really makes us wait for the good stuff. Douglas is edited in and out of the picture like a brilliant phantom, scarcely appearing at all in the first half hour, and over the entire length of the film, his screen time likely doesn’t total more than about 40 minutes. When Douglas is on screen however, he really turns up, and lights the sucker on fire with the same deliciously slick, smarmy charm that made his Gekko such a cult icon in the first place. Fans of his may initially assume that Gekko, now a rehabilitated product of the prison system, has gone soft, but Stone ensures not to alienate the core fanbase, for Gordon still has brushes with greed here, and above all else, he hasn’t lost that shark-like mentality, which is just the perfect weapon with which to take down the unerringly corrupt bankers.
Like just about every film Stone makes, Money Never Sleeps is a moral film with a weighty political message. Stone places his characters – most of all Gekko – on a soapbox by which Stone essentially espouses his own rhetoric. Never one to be banal in his preaching, however, he keeps the dialogue snappy and venom-filled, reconciling his aspirations to the sermon by the fact that it is a mostly entertaining one. Uncommonly for Stone – though showing signs of a possible trend after his oddly even-handed W. – there is enough moralising to go around, and he makes complicit in the collapse of the banks not only LaBeouf’s Jake (who is quickly cut-down from his high horse after reaming out his mother, played by Susan Sarandon, about her excesses), but the viewer also, citing the instinctive greed (as it pertains to excessive lending and unmanagable consumption) as only courting the inevitable financial collapse.
Still, at its heart this is a card-carrying melodrama, with the stock market and power plays serving as something of a backdrop to the relationships between the film’s characters. Its effectiveness in this stead varies; the romantic plot involving Winnie and Jake is the film’s weakest element, with one especially needless bombshell being thrown in as a desperate attempt to lend the third act a little more urgency. Douglas’ Gekko, in staging a rather spectacular return to his old tricks, is more compelling (Douglas, in the film’s best scene, knocks a brief monologue about Gekko’s dead son out of the park), though a lot of good work here is undone by the film’s cheesy shambles of a climax, which feels rushed (shockingly for a 133-minute film) and incongruent to the nature of not only Gekko the man, but to people of this nature in general.
Any scrap of decorum goes to the dogs in the schmaltzy, out-of-nowhere ending, which feels horribly tacked on, accompanied by a horrid in-credits sequence which might erase any inkling that this is a film from the same man who brought us visceral classics like Platoon and Natural Born Killers. Stone, at first, seems to be heading towards an ending that remarks that greed may not be good, but it is an innate part of human beings, only to betray this entirely. Had Stone cut his film off a good ten minutes before he did, it would feel a lot smoother going down.
As politically toothed and excessive as all of Stone’s films, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps solidly juggles its political aspirations with a mostly entertaining narrative, played out by a fabulous cast of actors – Frank Langella (Jake’s downtrodden, broke boss), Josh Brolin (the slimy Big Bad), Susan Sarandon (Jake’s financially irresponsible mother), Charlie Sheen (cameoing rather amusingly as his Bud Fox character from the first film), and even Eli Wallach (an eccentric, whistling head of big business) – though it is marred sorely by a sloppy conclusion, which closes out Gordon Gekko’s legacy in an undeniably unsatisfying manner. Still, the climax aside, there is a lot of good work going on here.