Friday, September 24, 2010

Snoozer - Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

I doubt if there could be a timelier sequel, given the recent economic meltdown, than Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. But timing is pretty much all it has on its side. Director Oliver Stone returns to the Machiavellian world of high financing that he first examined in Wall Street (1987), but the new picture is enervating and more dramatically conflicted than the original. It’s a snoozer.

Stone had a huge hit with Wall Street, and not just because it neatly reflected the yuppie obsession with junk bonds and insider trading. In his previous films (and screenplays), Stone revealed a split personality. Pictures like Salvador (1986) and Platoon (1986) may have shown Stone to possess a more left-wing perspective on American foreign policy, but the guy who also wrote Midnight Express (1978) and Year of the Dragon (1985) seemed to simultaneously hold some of the same right-wing macho attitudes of John Milius. That split added tension to Salvador (still his best movie) and most of Platoon, but in Wall Street, Oliver Stone smoothed over the cracks in his polemics. He created an American fascist of the financial world in Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), an amoral predator, who wrecks companies to score millions as easily as a child dissembles building blocks. But Stone took it an extra step: He cleverly turned his adversary into an appealing character, a reflection of himself, by having his critiques of capitalism cozily couched in Gekko’s swagger. That’s why Wall Street became such a big success with Michael Douglas earning for him an Oscar.

Rather than being a searing critique of American greed, Wall Street was basically a popular melodrama about the sacrificing of a virgin. When Gekko draws an ambitious (yet innocent) broker, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), into his web, the heart of the story is about whether the chaste Bud will lose his soul to this fiscal Satan. Stone had already found success with that formula in Platoon. Charlie Sheen’s young soldier in Vietnam in that picture got positioned between the temptations of the Devil (played by Tom Berenger) and the saintly pot-smoking Christ figure (played by Willem Dafoe). In Wall Street, Sheen once again had to choose between good and evil: Gekko, or his saintly and ethical working-class father (played by his real dad Martin Sheen). Of course, purity won out. Gekko went to prison and Bud got back his soul (curiously by being more ruthless and unethical than his mentor). Stone’s conflicting temperament has always been hidden by his bombast (which is why his paranoid tirade implicating Lyndon Johnson in the assassination of Kennedy, in the 1991 JFK, was conventionally disguised as a Frank Capra-like muckraking picture). But the bombast seems to have gone out of Stone’s work since World Trade Center (2006), and what is left is dramatic inertia.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps begins promisingly. Gekko has been in prison for eight years and is about to be released to a world that has made his methods seem antiquated. (There’s a good gag here. When he’s given back his vintage 1987 mobile phone, it’s also become antiquated.) After Gekko sizes up the new world from outside the prison gates, the picture flash-forwards to the present. We first meet Jacob (Shia LaBeouf), a conscientious broker working for an admired firm. He is also engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who wants nothing to do with her father and runs an investigative website. But when Jacob’s firm, and its esteemed director (Frank Langella), are brought down by the wickedly expedient Bretton James (Josh Brolin), whose company created enough panic to doom them with the Federal Reserve Board, Jacob is looking for payback. To do so, he turns to Gordon Gekko, who has just written a book about the new Wall Street.

Initially, Douglas gives a relaxed, good-humoured performance that also reveals the regrets he feels for having destroyed his family. (While in prison, his son overdosed on drugs and his wife abandoned him.) But, dramatically speaking, do we really believe that Gordon Gekko is a candidate for redemption? The premise is about as flimsy as Coppola’s The Godfather, Part III, when Michael Corleone sought redemption by laundering money through the Vatican. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps also raises other questions. If Winnie despises her Wall Street father so much, what is she doing with Jacob? If Jacob was tutored by a tough boss, why is he continually so blind to Gekko’s games? Speaking of Jacob’s boss, if he’s so sharp how did Bretton James manage to unseat him with rumours alone? And if Bretton James is so intelligently ruthless how did he not see clean-faced Jacob’s desire for revenge coming when he hired him? Stone gets caught up in the minutiae of stock trading rather than the pertinent details of the story. Yet, as susceptible as Charlie Sheen was in the original Wall Street, Shia LaBeouf is far too lightweight to be going the rounds with Michael Douglas. There’s no contest. (Sheen also has a cameo as Bud Fox in the movie, but it’s a pungent joke. Without uncorking the punch line, Bud Fox has turned into Charlie Sheen.) Carey Mulligan gives her performance some gravity, but unfortunately she’s kept to the outskirts of the picture. As for James Brolin, he could be playing Dracula in Armani drag.

While I’m not a huge fan of the heavy-handedness Stone displayed in many of his popular films, without it, his recent movies seem weightless. For instance, during his presidency, George W. Bush was a lightning rod for rhetoric and rage, but Stone’s W. (2008) barely causes a ripple. You would think the appalling lack of decency and compassion displayed by bankers and brokers during the financial crisis would have inspired some rage in Oliver Stone, but his energies seem spent. In his Wall Street sequel money may not sleep, but the audience sure might.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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