Friday, September 24, 2010

Review: "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" starts out as a big-stakes film attempting a grand statement about the rift lines in the machine of American capitalism. It ends up going small-time, as a miserly story about people we do not understand behaving in ways we don't believe.

It has been 23 years since Oliver Stone solidified the image of the Decade of Greed in the pop culture zeitgeist, and the sequel wants to be an update of how things have changed -- for the worse. It's set in 2008, when our entire financial system nearly sputtered to a standstill, and instead of being the merchant of inside information, this time Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) has positioned himself as the oracle of fiscal sanity.

Or is he?

After spending eight years in prison for insider trading and other crimes, Gekko is out hocking his book, "Is Greed Good?" He gives speeches to rapt audiences talking about how the leveraged debt and other shady dealings carried on now put anything he did to shame.

"While I was away it seems greed got greedier, with a little bit of envy mixed in," he says.

His would-be protege this time is Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a hungry young trader with a passion for green technology. He's also engaged to one Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), the estranged daughter of Gordon. She won't speak to her dad, and runs an anti-Wall Street web site called Frozen Truth.

Now, think about that for a minute. Here's a principled young woman who despises her father, despises the abuses of the financial markets, and has centered her career around denigrating them both. And yet she would fall for a young shark like Jake who relishes making deals and cutting the throats of the competition? The sort of guy who buys her an engagement ring worth a house in the suburbs?

Winnie remains an unbelievable figure throughout. She's supposed to be smart, but a few words from Jake and she's ready to turn over the keys to her family legacy (amortizing in a Swiss bank) to him. A few words from Gordon and she's ready to forgive him, too.

Stone was never very good with centered, plausible female characters, and Winnie is just another in a long line of women who exist merely to further the plot.

The heavy is Bretton James (Josh Brolin), head of the powerful firm of Churchill-Schwartz. There's bad blood between him and Gekko, and Gordon's looking to use Jake to exact a little revenge -- some for himself, and some for sending Jake's company down the tubes, and his beloved mentor (Frank Langella) along with it.

But Bretton throws them a surprise, by offering Jake a job instead of crushing him. Soon the idealistic young Jake is inside the enemy's camp, carrying water for Gekko and keeping secrets from Winnie. At this point, a little more than halfway through, the movie has no more secrets that we haven't already guessed.

Stone displays his usual visual flair, sending his camera spinning around stock tickers and up and down the sleek walls of Wall Street, showing us the environment of steel dedicated to the hoarding of wealth for its own sake. "Money is a one-eyed bitch who lays in bed staring at you ... if you're not careful, in the morning she'll be gone," is how Gekko puts it.

The screenplay by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff is filled with zippy dialogue and crisp scenes. I especially liked one where Gekko, having dinner with Winnie and Jake at a swank Manhattan restaurant, greets one of the Wall Street titans and the guy blows him off, not even recognizing him. Douglas gives a terrific reaction that reveals his mortification -- not at the social faux pas, but at the fact it demonstrates he's not a player anymore.

I also loved when Gekko calls a bunch of college students the "Ninja generation": No income, no jobs or assets.

But despite these slick elements, the movie is a confused mix of personal story and indictment of the financial sector that never really tie together. The central dynamic seems to be whether Gekko has truly reformed or not, but he's really a secondary character who flits in and out of the background for most of the film, until he takes on a sudden importance close to the end.

The Bretton James angle holds no mystery -- the way Brolin snorts and glares, we know it's just a matter of time before he's buried under a mountain of his own arrogant missteps.

Fairly or not, "Wall Street" nailed the culture of avarice that undeniably existed in the 1980s ... but so it did in the '90s, '00s and every decade before (and will after). Stone's haphazard sequel reshuffles the deck, but relies on the same old cinematic card tricks.

2 stars out of four

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