Rapid Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Oliver Stone is one of Hollywood’s most polarizing directors. He can have intense moments of scathing and artful insight (Natural Born Killers, Platoon, JFK) and yet can produce and direct films that are both banal and frivolous (Alexander, The Doors). He works best when he’s on a tour-de-force diatribe, ready to pounce on society with guns a blazing.
In his screenplay for 1983’s Scarface, he skewered the rising prowess of the drug trade with no holds barred, but by 1987 he had his sights set on a much classier, more untouchable prey. With Wall Street, Stone brought to the screen a scathing commentary about a more dangerous breed of criminal: the American Yuppie.
At the heart of Wall Street was one of the most iconic performances in film history, and Michael Douglas’s slick and sadistic Gordon Gekko has today become a synonym for greed incarnate. Wall Street was supposed to be the tale of Bud Fox(Charile Sheen)’s failure to achieve the American Dream, but the character of Bud was overshadowed by his mentor and nemesis, the iconic Gekko. Gekko, as both a man and a character, was such a gleefully adept master manipulator that it was a shame to see him get his just desserts at the end of the original film. Stone, much like his audience, must have been thinking for the past 20 years what Gordon Gekko would do once he was released from white-collar hell into the wilds of modern society.
This leads us up to the present, and to Money Never Sleeps, which asks that very intriguing question, but doesn’t make it the focus of the film. Instead, this is the story of young trader/investment banker Jake Moore, who faces a far different economic landscape than the one Gekko ruled over with an iron (if impeccably manicured) iron fist.
The premise for Money Never Sleeps is so simple it might be ripped from the 1980s screenwriter handbook. Take a young up-and-comer in the world of wheeling and dealing corporate finance, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), and create a need for him to seek out Gekko’s help. In this case, Jake’s mentor and idol, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) has died under mysterious circumstances. Jake himself is trying to build his fortune by investing in “green” energy, and is caught in that eternal moral dilemma between what is good for the economy/society and what is good for the pocketbook. This leads up to the film’s last hour, which is essentially a revenge ballad to the tune of an NYSE ticker (if that ticker had been composed by David Byrne and Brian Eno).
Throw in Gekko’s 2010 counterpart, slimy entrepreneur Bretton James (Josh Brolin) and add into the mix the fact that Jake is romantically involved with Gekko’s willful and morally incorruptible daughter (who happens to work for a Leftist not-for-profit blog site)Winnie (Carey Mulligan) and you have a recipe for scene chewing extraordinaire at every conceivable turn.
Douglas’s Gekko doesn’t come into true focus until midway through the film, which is a shame. Up until that point, we have to delve into a backstory for Jake’s mentor Zabel and his arch-rival James that conveniently brings us forward in time to the recent economic bailout. This portion of the tale is more convoluted and forced than compelling. Still, with such eye candy supporting performances and cameos popping up at every turn, there is enough to keep the momentum going.
Much like the original film, the success of Money Never Sleeps lies in the hands of its powerful performances. Douglas manages to show the world exactly why we missed Gekko, who is so steely and sharp that touching him might give you frostbite. He’s a brilliant enigma with the face of an infomercial salesman, and therein lies the danger for both Jake/Winnie and the audience. How much of his personality is salesmanship and how much is genuine?
LeBeouf manages to give his first credible adult performance in the film, and while his acting skills pale in comparison with those of Douglas, Mulligan, Brolin and Langella, he serves his purpose. As an everyman and a relatable fellow, he succeeds in making the viewer care what happens to him, and that’s enough.
Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan’s star continues to rise, and she manages to make Winnie (the moral compass of the film) likeable, interesting and complex.
The ending of the film is a little too neat and tailored to quite fit the bravura personalities involved, but that’s a quibble that comes late in the action. I’m guessing the original ending happened after a certain inevitable event and the final narration by Jake , and it would have made for a more poignant and realistic film more in tune with the message Stone seems to be sending.
Still, Money Never Sleeps is an entertaining ride through a maze of money and mischief. While it may not cultivate the pop culture significance of the original film, Stone still has something interesting to say about the sharks who care so much about the bottom line that they don’t mind becoming morally, as well as financially, bankrupt.
For now, at least, I’m still listening…
Overall Grade: B