Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I might not be much of a fan of Oliver Stone’s politics – but damn does the man make good films. Some of my favorite movies were produced or directed by Stone – including Scarface, Wall Street and the biopic of George W. Bush.

His latest film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps takes Stone into uncharted territory – his first sequel.

Following on from 1987’s Wall Street, Money Never Sleep reintroduces the iconic character of Gordon Gekko and explores how the bloodhound of Wall Street fares on the eve of the 2008 economic collapse.

Visually, this film is worlds apart from the original Wall Street – a demonstration of the way the world’s moved on in the past two decades (and neatly echoed by one of the funniest scenes in the movie, when Gordon Gekko is released from prison and handed his ‘state of the art’ cell phone by the corrections officer. What had been cutting edge in ‘87 was a veritable brick by today’s standards.)

Stone uses digital imagery to intertwine computer ticker feeds, news channel graphics and stock charts into the stunning architecture of lower Manhattan, and uses some truly innovative camera tricks that make his original movie seem almost flat and amateurish by comparison. It’s got an energy and pace to it that the original film lacked.

Yet despite presenting us with such a visual feast, Money Never Sleeps never quite lives up to the original movie – largely because Stone made the mistake of centering the plot of Money Never Sleeps around a thing instead of a person.

Stone’s best works – Scarface, W. and the original Wall Street – are character studies, rich with visceral human development. Whether focusing on Cuban refugee Tony Montana, blue collar broker Bud Fox or maligned and misunderstood former president George Bush, each film takes us on a journey rife with moral pitfalls. The characters are flawed, but fascinating – and the denouement of each film involves the consequences of the decisions they’ve ultimately made.

Whereas Money Never Sleeps is more about the culture of Wall Street itself, rather than a character – and the character we do have is a somewhat sophomoric Shia LeBouef.

LeBouef’s broker, Jacob, never has his morality tested in the same way Stone’s other characters typically do. He doesn’t go through much development, either – the reason Tony Montana and Bud Fox were so compelling is that they came from nothing and gained everything through questionable choices. We first meet LeBouef’s character lounging in bed in his $6 million penthouse, and receiving a $1.45 million bonus from the director of his bank – so we can’t see ourselves in his five hundred dollar shoes because it’s never explained how he earned them.

Stone clearly has an axe to grind with Money Never Sleeps, rather than a story to tell.

The film is an attack on the culture of greed and incompetence that led to America's financial collapse. Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko - untempered by his time behind bars – berates the students of NYU for taking his mantra and turning it into a monstrosity:
“Someone reminded me I once said "Greed is good". Now it seems it's legal. Because everyone is drinking the same Kool Aid.”
It’s how that ‘Kool Aid’ culture collapses which serves as the narrative thrust of Money Never Sleeps.

LeBouef’s mother, played as a Long Island harpy by Susan Sarandon, is a former nurse who’s made it big on the real estate market – until house prices plummet. Frank Langella, playing the head of a fictionalized Bear Stearns, sees his bank’s stock goes from $79 a share to just $3 in the space of three weeks. Stone perennial Josh Brolin (who was masterful as the titular character in W.) plays the CEO of a fictionalized JPMorganChase exposed for shorting stock through billions of dollars of insider trading.

“The mother of all evil is speculation,” Gekko warns from the sidelines, as he witnesses Wall Street come to the sickening realization that the billions of dollars they’ve built their fortunes on never truly existed in the first place. "It's easy to get in - it's hard to get out. "

It’s a 100% accurate representation of what happened; caught in picture-perfection through the unflattering lens of hindsight.

But the narrativewas never what was going to drive people into the theater, and Stone clearly realized that the box office potential of Money Never Sleeps rested with Michael Douglas, who truly made the original Wall Street with his portrayal of angry, ambitious entrepreneur Gordon Gekko.

Dutifully, Stone give Douglas some more truly memorable lines in this movie, and makes sure Gekko is the only character who comes off a winner.

Echoing Warren Buffet’s mantra that a recession is ‘time for us to get rich,’ Gekko takes his estranged daughter’s $100 million trust fund and turns it into a billion bucks by treating the financial collapse like a fire sale. It’s great to see this character back in his element – hungry, callous and calculating – but the development ultimately falls flat because Gekko has clearly learned nothing during his character’s time in prison.

Instead of self-destructing like Tony Montana, or sacrificing it all to ‘do the right thing’ like Bud Fox was forced to, Gordon Gekko makes the same questionable moral choices in this movie as he did in the last one – only he gets rewarded for them this time around.

That’s ultimately why Money Never Sleeps falls far short of the original Wall Street – but it’s still a visually stunning and fascinating film to watch. Michael Douglas is terrific, and fans of the original Wall Street – or those interested in learning more about America’s financial meltdown – will find him worth the ticket price alone.

I was underwhelmed, but not disappointed.

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