Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Sequel Too Smart For Summer Starts Fall Movie Season With Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

The Good: Good story, Good acting, Good characters
The Bad: Pacing, Some jargon.
The Basics: While a little slow in parts, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps returns Gordon Gekko to freedom and he sets his sights on reconciling his broken relationship with his daughter.

As summer winds to a close with inane comedies and dramas that would not hold their own during the spectacle times of Summer Blockbuster Season, I find myself - like many movie reviewers - in a lull until the Christmas Blockbuster push and Oscar Pandering Season. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps promises to buck the trend of the September Slump.

When I first saw the movie poster for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I thought, "That's an odd choice for a sequel" and "I can't wait for Shia LaBeouf's bubble to pop!" But as inane comedies hit theaters alongside back-to-school date movies, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps offers a very different option for movie viewers and it is an option moviegoers ought to exercise. It has been years since I watched Wall Street, but the film catches the viewer right up with the important aspects of that film in order to watch this blind. However, for those who want to be surprised by Wall Street (click here for my review!), they must stop reading now. It is impossible to discuss Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps without referencing the consequences of the end of Wall Street. That said . . .

After years in prison, white collar criminal Gordon Gekko is paroled for his abuses of Wall Street trading and he finds himself unable to work in the financial markets again. Even so, by 2008, he sees a the bloated market and attempts to warn those still in financial power that a downturn is coming, but is ostracized at virtually every turn. He sees his “in,” however, with Jacob. Jacob is a young investment banker who is working his way up at Keller Zabel. Idealistic, he is troubled because he begins to suspect rival investment banker Brenton James of corrupt activities, but is unable to prove it. Gordon enters his life when Jake introduces himself at a lecture, as Gordon's daughter's fiancĂ©. Winnie, Gordon's daughter, still loathes Gordon and the ever-calculating Gordon sees helping Jake as a step on the road to redemption with his daughter.

But soon, Brenton James – the manager of  Churchill-Schwartz, where Jake goes to work after Keller Zabel collapses – begins covering his tracks well and he reveals himself to be a virtual disciple of Gordon’s “greed is good” ideals. With Gordon pulling the strings, Jacob works to prove just how corrupt James truly is.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is the movie Oliver Stone’s other film, W. should have been. W. was a character study that failed to truly explore or extrapolate the consequences of one man’s actions. By contrast, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is almost entirely about consequences and Stone beats the viewer over the head with that idea. James is suffering the consequences of (allegedly) driving Lewis Zabel to his death, Gordon is suffering the consequences of his manipulations of the market and Bud Fox, Winnie is suffering the consequences of lacking a father figure for so many years. But even as Jacob works to prove Bretton James’ crimes, he moralizes about what getting in bed with Gordon actually means and he, arguably, is the one most aware of the potential negative consequences of his actions.

The brilliance of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not that director Oliver Stone and writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff keep one guessing about whether or not prison has truly reformed Gordon Gekko or not. Gordon is Gordon and manipulation is what he does. From almost his first scene, the viewer knows he is up to something and it does not take long for that to start to be made explicit in ways that are enjoyable to watch. The initial confrontation between Gordon and Winnie gives Gordon a wonderful goal: to try to get back in his daughter’s good graces. From the moment Gordon sets his mind to that, the brilliance of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not that Gordon is reformed, it is how he uses the same influences and manipulations to achieve a personal goal that he used to achieve his professional goals. In other words, no matter how bad Bretton James is supposed to be, Gordon Gekko’s manipulations always have at least as seedy a sensibility to them.

And, because of the Jacob/Bretton plot, there is plenty of money changing hands and financial information being spewed about. And this, naturally, puts Gordon Gekko close to the field that he is legally prevented from entering.  It also leaves many viewers confused by the jargon. It is unsurprising how Gordon manipulates Jake in the same arena and one of the saving graces of the movie is that even while it is bogged down with exploring the idea of consequences, it also explores the basic human desire for revenge. When Jake loses Zabel, something in him does snap to the irrational and the exploration of the drive to right the wrong makes his character interesting, even when the viewer feels he is just a puppet to Gordon.

Michael Douglas reprises his role of Gordon Gekko for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and he is able to humanize the character some by playing off his own charm, especially in early scenes between Jake and Gordon. But during key monologues, Douglas re-establishes the charisma and coldness that made Gordon such a great villain in Wall Street and there is an unbroken strength to the character and the performance that resonates quite strongly.

As for Shia LaBeouf, this is arguably his best work since he played Richie Lupone as a kid on The X-Files. Yes, I go that far back for a time I liked LaBeouf’s performance, but as Jacob he brings a detachment and stiffness that actually works wonderfully for making him seem to be a credible member of the financial community. In fact, his weakest moments are those when he has to be credibly in love with Carey Mulligan’s Winnie Gekko. LaBeouf may not sell the basic human love connection, but he performs well with the jargon surrounding both money and revenge. And the movie does have a lot of jargon to it.

Carey Mulligan is arguably the human heart of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. She plays an adult level of hurt beautifully and she holds her own for screen presence against Michael Douglas. Josh Brolin, Charlie Sheen and Frank Langella give memorable supporting or cameo performances (Sheen’s appearance is rather minor) that tie together the world of the Wall Street films quite well.

Ultimately, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a split movie that only truly comes together in the final scenes. It is half a revenge story with a wounded young man pairing with a master manipulator, it is half a financial story of the consequences of rampant greed. But ultimately, the film is about the dehumanizing nature of unrestrained capitalism and that is as poignant today as it was twenty-plus years ago.

For other movies featuring Michael Douglas, please check out my reviews of:
Wonder Boys
The Game


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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