Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (United States, 2010)September 24, 2010
There are times when iconic characters should be left alone to bask in the glory of a single appearance and, unfortunately, that's the case with Gordon Gekko. The supremely charismatic, magnetically villainous central figure from Oliver Stone's 1987 examination of '80s financial corruption, Wall Street, has returned to the scene of his crimes some two decades later and the magic is gone. The problem with an inferior sequel, which Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is, is that it runs the risk of diminishing a great character. Too often during this second installment, Gekko is on the sidelines as the confused, rambling storyline focuses on other less interesting individuals or takes lengthy detours into a pseudo-documentary exhumation of the 2008 stock market blowout that led to the bailout package. Money Never Sleeps is engaging enough when Gekko is on screen but, at least until the final 20 minutes, that's too little and not often enough.
Money Never Sleeps opens with a brief scene in 2001 that shows the release of Gekko (Michael Douglas) from prison, then skips ahead seven years into the height of the stock market crisis. An up-and-coming broker, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who is engaged to Gekko's daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), decides to meet his future father-in-law. Their conversation is cordial but it is clear each wants something from the other and this will not be their final encounter. Meanwhile, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), the head of the firm for which Jake works, finds himself in increasingly dire straits because of the massive number of toxic mortgages on his books. After being browbeaten and given an ultimatum by rival Bretton James (Josh Brolin), he decides on a Shakespearean way out. Jake blames Bretton for Zabel's suicide and vows revenge. Gekko, who has a score to settle with Bretton, offers his help if Jake can affect a reunion between him and Winnie.
It will come as no surprise that Gekko, even as watered-down as he is after a term in prison, is by far the most interesting character in the movie. When he's on screen, we pay attention. However, there are lengthy periods (some as long as 15-20 minutes), when he's absent, and no one else is capable of filling the void. Jake, played generically by Shia LaBeouf, is dull and bland. For a while, we think Jake might be in the mold of a Bud Fox (who, as played by Charlie Sheen, has a delicious cameo), but he turns out to be a little more ethically grounded. As a result, his Wall Street shenanigans lack a certain flair. Carey Mulligan suffers from having been given a one-dimensional personality, although she does the best she can with it. Winnie can be summed up in one sentence: a liberal with serious Daddy issues who cries in about 50% of her scenes. Her romance with Jake is lifeless; not only do the actors lack chemistry, but their dialogue is routine and pedestrian. Susan Sarandon makes a couple of token appearances as Jake's mom, a real estate investor who's in over her head in a bad market. Frank Langella has some nice moments, but he's not around for very long. And, despite having shown the ability to be a truly nasty bad guy in the past, Josh Brolin is unimpressive in this instance.
Is Gekko a hero or a villain? Not even Stone seems to know. At times, he fills both roles: the watchdog barking out warnings about the imminent implosion of the financial sector and the opportunist who takes advantage of an opening when presented with it. Gekko is more amoral than immoral, which is a step up from where he was in Wall Street. But, having become afflicted with something resembling a conscience, he becomes less enjoyable although not necessarily more complex. It's fascinating to see how Stone and Douglas view Gekko 20 years later, when no one knows his name and he has been largely forgotten. Still, for my money, the pseudo-Gekko played by Douglas in Solitary Man was more engaging.
At 134 minutes, Money Never Sleeps runs too long and has a lot of space in which to ramble. By mixing fact, fiction, and speculation (something in which Stone has always dabbled), the filmmakers are given an opportunity to offer ideas and opinions about what might have happened behind closed doors leading to the bailout. Unfortunately, the scope of the narrative is too scattershot to hold together, with three distinct storylines vying for contention: Gekko's return, Jake's turbulent personal and professional life, and the back-room wheeling and dealing accompanying the 2008 crash. It's almost as if three different scripts were written then inelegantly forced together. There are some nice moments and interesting scenes but the production as a whole is a disappointment. For this film to have worked, Stone needed to make Jake as interesting as Gekko, and he never comes close.
Returning to Wall Street 23 years after his first visit, Oliver Stone has discovered that the more things change, the more they stay the same. His sequel is redundant and lacking in energy. Wall Street remains a fascinating time capsule of '80s greed. The follow-up will cannot be said to offer the same perspective of where a similar vein of greed took the economy two decades later.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (United States, 2010)
Cast: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton
Screenplay: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Music: Craig Armstrong
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox