Movie Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
To be more specific, “money is a bitch that never sleeps.” But Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps doesn’t have the courage of his convictions. Like 2008′s W., which came at the end of a long national nightmare, Stone has made a film about America as it is now, fraught with corruption and run by bankers who function like mafiosos in unseen boardrooms, but it is stingless. This is all about the surface level of greed, and as the stocks tumble downward and phrases like “sub-prime” and “credit swap” are tossed around with little explanation as to what exactly they mean, Stone shifts focus from the large, inexplicable problem at hand to a small family drama involving two kids who are about to get married and the bride’s father, who is just getting out of jail.
Of course, the father is Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), which makes things different. While he seems sad and repentant standing outside federal prison, while he appears to want to fix his relationship with his daughter, while he goes on a book tour warning business students of the dangers that greed, which is now legal, presents, it must be remembered that Gekko is a con, a snake-oil salesman. Even as the author if Is Greed Good?, he is squarely focused on the deal: Buy my book and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.
Give him something he wants, and Gekko will grant you the most important commodity he has: Time. Luckily for Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), he has what Gekko wants most: A relationship with his daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, who is mostly wasted after her phenomenal turn in An Education). If things had gone the way Gordon planned, he would have gotten out of jail and gone on a trip with Winnie. Circumstances being what they are, however, Gordon has fallen out of favor with his daughter for a number of reasons–his greed, his son dying as an addict, his wife going crazy. Still sane and making it on her own as the editor of a left-wing blog, Winnie abandons her father to live a normal life with a normal man. But Jake is like Gordon–he loves business, loves money, and would love to jump down the throats of those who’ve burned him.
The problem with all of this is quite simple, actually: It was done before, and much better, in 1987. Oh, don’t get me wrong. Gordon Gekko is still a tremendous character, and Michael Douglas imbues him with the kind of raw, powerful animal magnetism that made him simultaneously so frighting (to normal people) and so attractive (to guys with a multitude of $3000 suits). There are several stand out scenes, among them Gekko lecturing a business class about how Wall Street had overextended itself before the crash and Gekko’s two attempts at reconciliation with his daughter. The first goes poorly, as he takes her and Jake to Winnie’s childhood favorite resturant, only to be distracted as several old business contacts walk by. He tries to kiss their asses, reveals himself to be the same old Gordon, looking for a foothold. Then there’s the confrontation between Winnie and Gordon on the stairs of the Met, where we find out what happened to the Gekko clan while Gordon was in jail, and where Gordon seems genuinely devastated at what his family had endured.
But almost none of this has to do with Jake Moore, who is our main character and foot in the door. He is supposed to serve as our guide to the way Wall Street works now, but, based on what he does, Wall Street is basically a political minefield where even rumors of insolvency can prompt the once successful head of an investment firm to make a date with an oncoming subway train. That’s all well and good, but we’re not exactly being told anything we don’t know. There’s about fifteen minutes throughout the movie dedicated to Jake blabbering on about fusion and the need to invest in it, phone calls with faraway scientists in California who need $100 million or they’ll never make deadlines and will have to cut employees, but you probably aren’t going to see this movie to see its well-produced Powerpoint presentation on the potential of this technology, and its only real purpose is to establish Jake Moore as a kind of New Wall Street–an idealistic investor who wants to put his money where the future is. The future of what is the question–his species or his wallet?
Of course, he gets suckered every which way he turns. By his firm, which hands him a million dollar check that he promptly loses by putting that money into company stock on the eve of an historic collapse. By Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the head of a rival firm who hires Jake seemingly just so he can disregard his sound advice. By Gekko, who only cares about Jake so much as he’s a tenuous link to Winnie. As played by Shia LaBeouf, Jake is a pretty vanilla lead, which makes sense considering that Shia LaBeouf is a pretty vanilla actor. Hollywood continues to insist upon putting him up on the screen with legends–thus far he has been there with Indiana Jones, has traipsed through modern re-imaginings of two Alfred Hitchcock films, and here finds himself in the same movie with Brolin, Frank Langella, and Douglas, whose Gekko may as well be the living embodiment of the 1980s. LaBeouf is the living embodiment of plain yogurt. It’s hard to have an opinion about plain yogurt besides “Wow, this’d be much better with some flavor.”
Actually, “flavorless” is a pretty good way of summing up this sequel, which is oddly without purpose in a time where it’d be nice to see a major studio release swoop in and start pointing fingers at the men and women responsible for the mess we’ve found ourselves in. Instead, we get this neutered effort from Stone, who I wouldn’t have put money on to make a movie this soft on his antagonists. But then again, his last film was a two hour long argument for giving George W. Bush a hug. No investment bankers are given a hug here, but plenty are let off the hook. These are greedy people, the movie argues, because we let them be greedy. But the movie doesn’t fight back. It seems to lack the strength required to do what it’s predecessor does, so it cops out, caves in, and gives us a tepid, unconvincing romance. This is not the movie Oliver Stone is capable of, nor is it the one America requires.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Directed by Oliver Stone. With Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko), Shia LaBeouf (Jake Moore), Josh Brolin (Bretton James), Carey Mulligan (Winnie Gekko), and Frank Langella (Louis Zabel). Released September 24, 2010, by 20th Century Fox.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.