Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)
Directed by: Oliver Stone   
Written by: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone.
Starring: Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko), Shia LaBeouf (Jake Moore), Carey Mulligan (Winnie Gekko), Frank Langella (Louis Zabel), Josh Brolin (Bretton James), Eli Wallach (Julie Steinhardt), Vanessa Ferlito (Audrey), Susan Sarandon (Jake's Mother), Sylvia Miles (Realtor).

The irony that Gordon Gekko a character that writer/director Oliver Stone and star Michael Douglas meant as an indictment on Reagan-era greed on Wall Street ended up inspiring a whole new generation of Wall Street brokers, who wanted to be Gordon Gekko, has not been lost on Stone, or his collaborators. Nor has it been lost on them that while Gekko did some horrible things in the 1987 original film, his level of greed and corruption pales in comparison to what all of Wall Street did – apparently legally – leading up to the 2008 Financial Meltdown. Gekko’s actions were bad to be sure, but even had he gotten away with them, he only would have destroyed a few lives, not endanger the entire financial system on the planet. The timing back in 2010 therefore seemed right to make a sequel to Wall Street – and to even make Gekko into, if not the hero of the movie per se, at least not the villain. There was more than enough material to craft a great film about Wall Street greed back in 2010 – but as entertaining as Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is (and, it is, entertaining) it never quite gets there. There’s too much yelling, too much posturing, and like the previous film a forced “happy ending” where the bad guy gets what’s coming to him, even if it isn’t realistic in the least. The movie is, if anything, even flashier than the 1987 film – but unlike the original doesn’t quite have the substance to back it up.

The film takes place in the days leading up, and then the month leading away, the Financial Meltdown in 2008. Instead of young, idealist Bud Fox in the lead role, you have young idealist Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) – a young hotshot at a big Wall Street firm that, like the rest of the them, is swimming in toxic assets and has no idea how much trouble they’re in. Like Lehman Brothers, they’re the first domino to fall – and like in real life, everyone else lets them fail, causing its founder, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), who is Jake’s mentor, to commit suicide. Leading the charge against Zabel was his longtime enemy, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), and Jake wants revenge. Jake is currently dating Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter – and decides to reach out to the old legend – now out of jail for a few years, and making money with a new book. Gekko is his old charming self, and even though Winnie warns Jake to stay away, that Gordon will destroy them, he doesn’t listen. Gordon doesn’t like Bretton either – and Jake thinks he can help get some level of revenge on the man that he has just started to work for.

Making the whole 2008 Meltdown a personal issue is perhaps inevitable in a movie like this – but it’s also incorrect, as the problems were systemic as much as anything, and while there were villains enough to go around, but the film basically brings everything down to a personal level – where Bretton James is the “big bad wolf” that must be stopped, which ignores the larger problems in the system. While Gekko does give some rather long (all be it entertaining) speeches about the level of greed on Wall Street that tries to cover the wider array of problems – and because Douglas is an excellent actor, who slides right back into the role he was born for, these speeches work. But films like Margin Call or the HBO film Too Big to Fail (not to mention a documentary like Inside Job, or any number of This American Life episodes) do a better job at showing just how wide ranging the problem was, and how no one really understood it. In this, the Hollywood version, greed has to be personified, so it can be punished.

There is much to like about Money Never Sleeps – Stone still knows how to direct scenes of excess, and how seductive this sort of lifestyle can be (although Jake is too much of a choirboy for my tastes – I liked Bud Fox more, who was willing to get dirty). The movie has style to spare, and that mostly works. Douglas is excellent, as always, and even if Langella does little but bellow in his extended cameo, he’s fun, and Josh Brolin is having fun as well as the bad guy (even if the math on his age confused the hell out of me – how old is he supposed to be?). LaBeof’s Jake maybe dull – but as an audience surrogate, he’ll do. The bigger problem is Winnie – who the movie never really gets a handle on. At one point, Gekko asks Jake a very valid question that the film never does even attempt to answer – if Winnie hates Gordon so much, why the hell is she dating Jake? For that matter, why couldn’t Winnie just be in the Jake role, and then we could eliminate the whole needless romantic subplot between them – which really only seems to be there to connect Jake and Gordon in the first place? Mulligan is a fine actress, but she cannot save this nothing character – which once again, highlights Stone’s oft-cited woman problem.

I liked Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps more in 2010 than I did on this second time through, although it is still an entertaining little film. It is also a completely forgettable one – which is something I cannot say about too many other Oliver Stone films. Throughout this series, I have been surprised by just how much of other, earlier films of Stone’s I remember – but this one is one I almost completely forgot. It shows Stone can still direct, sure, but it doesn’t feel like a Stone film, which the first did. It isn’t seething with anger – which normally you can count on Stone for. The movie is fun, to be sure, but not a lot else.

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