Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Oliver Stone, 2010)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is Oliver Stone's sequel to his 1987 film Wall Street, starring the great Michael Douglas in his Oscar winning performance as Gordon Gekko. Reprising this role for the sequel he is joined by Shia LaBeouf (Transformers), Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men).

Set in 2008, 23 years after the events of the first film, revolving around the 2008 financial crisis, we are revealed that Gekko has been released from his lengthy prison sentence in 2002 for illegal insider trading. He has since completed and released a novel outlining his career and providing stock expertise for Wall Street executives as they plummet into a pending financial ruin. But, as a big business trader, his status has all but evaporated. Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) works for Keller Zabel Investments, and has high hopes of promoting a Fusion project which will ultimately provide an alternative energy source to fossil fuels. His potential runs ignored by his colleagues, with the exception of the company's managing director, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), who works as his mentor and has become disillusioned by the recent trends in investment banking and fears for the future of the company. World weary, he gives Jake a huge bonus and urges him to marry his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan), estranged daughter to Gordon Gekko, and a collaborator for a popular online political magazine.

When Keller Zabel's stocks plummet in value, likely through rumors spread by rival, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), Louis kills himself in disgrace. At a Gekko lecture, Jake seeks out his future father-in-law, requesting his business advice to try and collaborate with whoever benefited from the losses of Keller Zabel, likely Bretton James, and exert revenge. Gekko believes that James provided statements that resulted in his lengthy jail time, so he has his own personal interests in bringing him down. Growing older, Gordon wishes to get closer to Winnie, who blames Gordon for the death of her brother, and he asks Jake to provide recent photographs of her and set up dinners so the two can meet and talk.

Gordon makes Jake aware that Winnie has a Swiss trust fund containing $100 Million, and Jake manipulates her into signing off the money to him to use to fund Fusion research, embezzling the money through Gordon's contacts to avoid tax evasion. But ultimately the money never reaches Fusion. Gordon absconds to London with the money and begins trading once again. After Winnie breaks off the engagement, Jake tracks down Gordon in a desperate attempt to get the money back. Gordon rejects his request, stating that it was never about the money, but his love for the game. Gordon ultimately turns the $100 Million into over $1 Billion dollars, proving that he still has the genius to make money, and the film concludes with him paying back Winnie the $100 Million to fund her website, which has just supplied the groundbreaking story about the demise of James. Gordon, Jake and Winnie all reconcile, and Winnie has a son named Louie, after the deceased Lou Zabel.

Money Never Sleeps is bursting with period references to place the events in the 21st Century, just in case we didn't notice, and plenty of odd cultural in-jokes. The most obvious and notable is the inclusion of Eli Wallach as a colleague of Bretton James, and the use of the famous score for The Good the Bad and the Ugly as Jake's ring tone. Eli Wallach is one of the film's trio of stars. The brief cameo by Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) was fun but unnecessary, as was the use of Sylvia Miles as a real estate rival to Susan Sarandon. I'm really not convinced that Oliver Stone was taking himself seriously here. While most of the subject matter is actually quite depressing (the estrangement between Gordon and Winnie, his manipulation of Jake that threatens his future with Winnie, and the corrupt dealings that force the end of Keller Zabel), and the drama still somewhat absorbing, Stone's film is too tongue-in-cheek. In it's defence, it can be enjoyed by anyone, not just those familiar with big business corporate lingo.

The madness of the Wall Street brokerage firms is briefly shown early but all of this is forgotten once the business starts outside the office, at apartments and estates. Jake forms an alliance with Bretton James, who originally spread the rumors that dismantled Zabel's empire and forced him into suicide. With the help of Gordon, Jake attempts and ultimately succeeds in revealing his actions to the media out of revenge. But it is the Gordon/Winnie relationship that causes the most heartbreak, but also leads to Gekko's return to form. Michael Douglas is once again dynamic as Gekko, but his performance lacks the fire that made him so memorable in the first film. But this good-looking old guy still has the skills. In the best role I have seen him in, Shia LaBeouf is also quite impressive, as is the beautiful Carey Mulligan. But Josh Brolin, and Susan Sarandon (as Jake's mother) really didn't have a lot to do. Eli Wallach, who looked old back in The Godfather Part III (1990), had such a minimal amount of dialogue for a man with so much screen time.

To be honest, all of the characters were really lacking any depth. Jake wasn't struggling to rise the ranks or looking for the deal of a lifetime, he was given a $1.5 Million dollar bonus early in the film. So, it was unclear what Jake was really seeking beyond reconciling Winnie with her father and bring down James out of revenge. I guess, he was less about the material rewards and more for worldwide energy improvements. This opposing mentality to Gordon's money-hungry desires was clunky and ineffective. Winnie didn't care about money at all, she just didn't want Jake to turn into a greedy Wall Street executive like her father. Essentially, the biggest drama was Gekko's manipulation of Jake to gain access to Winnie's fund. There were no hints that he was after this money and it was a shock to see him go back to his scumbag days, when he was set to win her back into his life. But he eventually made so much money from this, and then just gave the $100 Million like it was nothing. He managed to push her as far away as he ever had, only to have her closer than ever by the silly conclusion.

The score featuring David Byrne and Brian Eno was excellent, but the film still seemed stuck in the 80's when Talking Heads were at their peak. Even the font used in the opening credits seemed to reference the 80's. But with so many periodical references, some as blatant as referencing Ridley Scott in Gladiator, this seems odd. Sure the city is stunning, but using the stock charts to trace around the cityscape was dumb. Most of the shots completely lacked imagination and even to add some dynamism, we really can't forgive the tacky technical additions. As Jake is explaining the complicated process of energy production to the investors, we are provided with a cheap looking powerpoint diagram of this process taking place. The explanation itself is unintelligible, and if this was being explained with the aid of a projection of this diagram, it would make some sense. But it is really not required at all and does nothing than to question the intelligence of the audience.

Money Never Sleeps will be a hit at the box office. The corporate business fantasy is alive in the 21st Century, and it is great to see Gordon Gekko back. I was often amused by this film, and I'm really not sure that Oliver Stone has really taken himself seriously here. Really cutting back the corporate lingo and lacking the attention to detail of the original, this is a more accessible film for a wider audience, but it's sure set to disappoint a lot of people. The flaws are everywhere, and while I certainly enjoyed myself, I can't help but think a better film existed somewhere amongst all the pieces.

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars

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