Tuesday, November 16, 2010

WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (2010) - Oliver Stone’s First Sequel

I can get past the fact that Stone finally has directed a sequel.  I can get past it because I don’t expect much in quality filmmaking from him in any case.  All of his films are flawed to some extent.  Most of his movies are overly long and often quite humorless (i.e., The Doors or JFK).  Stone’s not so much a realist as he is a sensationalist (Platoon or the original Wall Street).  And Stone tends to too highly value the importance of his own broad speculations (probably any movie by Stone with the exception of Natural Born Killers).  In all of these respects he is very much like other Hollywood directors.  For all of the hype surrounding his directing career, what is most surprising about Stone is that there is little that is original about his films.  Platoon would not exist without Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter having been released earlier.  And I don’t consider ascribing to the ideas of conspiracy theorists enough reason to praise JFK for originality.  I did find some merit in Wall Street, released in 1986, for at least being relevant.  I was hoping to see some of that same relevancy in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and, for perhaps the first half of the movie came close to seeing it.  Unfortunately, during the second part of the movie Stone reverts to melodrama and most of the sincerity in the film at that point vanishes.

The year is 2008, and we have Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) falling in love with Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), the daughter of the infamous Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas).  Jake is a good hearted and idealistic young Wall Street trader, and Winnie wants nothing to do with her father.  Jake’s mentor on Wall Street is Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), an aging investor and holdout on the new way of doing business in the financial marketplace.  Zabel’s investment company is about to go under, and the bailout required to prevent this from happening is blocked by a competing investor by the name of Bretton James (Josh Brolin).  Zabel is forced to sell out his company at such a low price to his competitor that he decides to end his life by throwing himself under a subway train rather than face more humiliation.  Jake is heartbroken.

We then endure an unnecessarily complicated revenge game where Jake enlists the assistance of Gordon Gekko to get back at James.  Gekko has a couple of reasons as to why he would like to help Jake out.  For one, Gekko has reason to believe his eight year prison sentence came about because of backroom testimony by James.  And for two, Gekko hopes to reconnect with his daughter, Winnie, through the assistance of Jake.  At least during the first half of the film, Gekko seems contrite.  He supports himself by writing a book entitled, Is Greed Good? and by lecturing on the need for ethical reform at Wall Street.  Gekko also feels guilty because of the death of his son by an accidental drug overdose.  Gekko knows that the only person left in his life that has any meaning for him is his daughter.  Gekko gets his revenge on James by exposing James, who has been manipulating market data to bolster his own company.  And for a short while, Gekko is able to reconnect with Winnie.

Stone cannot leave the story at that.  Gekko has to once again involve himself in the market place by nefariously filching money that had been left in trust for Winnie.  Now we are led to believe that Gekko, the blackguard of the first film, has returned to his evil ways.  Stone then tries to confuse the viewer more by suggesting that Gekko had mixed motives for doing what he did with Winnie’s money.  Though Gekko did want to again be a player, he does return the money (in a roundabout way) by investing it in an energy company that researches nuclear fusion and which Jake originally discovered.  Gekko does this after learning that Winnie is pregnant with Jake’s child.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a 127 minute movie and perhaps an hour of it was worth watching.  When Gekko and Winnie do connect we feel we are seeing some authenticity.  When Zabel is cornered into selling off his investment company to his rival, we feel that we are witnessing an injustice.  (However, throwing oneself under a train only worked as a dramatic device in Anna Karenina.)  But when we see how easily Gekko is able to walk away with Winnie’s money and once again insert himself as a player, we feel like we are being cheated.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is too much about single players trying to manipulate the market (and each other) and too little about a system of financing that is out of control.  It’s simple for Stone to suggest that greedy individuals like James and Gekko can help make the system rise and fall through market manipulations.  It’s too much for Stone to figure out the real reasons for the collapse of the market or for him to even suggest that he doesn’t know all of the answers.  Stone at certain points in the film blames the recession on all Americans for being greedy, and at other times on three or four individuals that do with the market as they please.  If Stone is suggesting that the economic downturn was largely due to a moral failing, he is undoubtedly correct.  But he is incapable of specifically addressing where that moral failing occurred.  Stone came closer to putting his finger on it in the original film when he suggests that too many individuals are making a living by moving money from the pockets of corporation into the pockets of another corporation without creating any benefit to society. 

Another and more serious flaw with the sequel is that we see no one (with the exception of Zabel) who didn’t already deserve to go to jail is actually hurt by the economic collapse.  Even Jake and Winnie are going to come out of this all right because they have the resources to support themselves for the rest of their lives.  Stone mostly shows off how rich people spend their time.  Charlie Sheen makes a cameo appearance reprising his earlier role as Bud Fox.  Douglas in the last half of the movie again plays the part of go-getter living wearing expensive suits and smoking Cuban cigars.  Jake and James take an exciting motorcycle ride as they race through some beautiful rural surroundings. The only individuals hurt in the movie are rich investors.  Nobody is poor in this film because Stone never takes us beyond Wall Street. 

The acting in the sequel is probably overall better than it was in the original.  Michael Douglas tones down his acting to now seem like a human being.  Josh Brolin is not as good as Douglas, but he is a believable villain.  Langella makes us care for the character he plays.  Carey Mulligan as Winnie brings a great deal of authenticity to a part that otherwise was a type.  Elli Wallach plays a role that would come off better in a late night horror flick.  And Shia LaBeouf exhibits very little acting range whatsoever.  Still, however we compare Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to the other film, the quality of the sequel is inferior to that of the original.  Whatever Stone’s intentions may have been in the sequel, he fails to deliver a relevant message. 

October 22, 2010
© Robert S. Miller 2010

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