September 24, 2010

Oliver Stone’s recent output shows a man desperate to remain topical.  Unfortunately, World Trade Center is pandering melodrama and W., while nowhere near the disaster it could’ve been, lacked adequate perspective beyond noting we all would’ve been better off if George W. Bush has just been commissioner of baseball.  Now Stone is trying to capitalize on the financial collapse of 2008 by returning to his classic 1987 drama Wall Street.  However, like with W., Stone is so centered on the idea of making a movie that’s socially relevant, that he misses an opportunity for insight or even controversy.  Instead, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a movie that, despite strong performances, loses itself in a convoluted plot and a cheap ending.

Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a player on Wall Street in 2007.  The film never makes it clear if he’s an analyst or a broker or a trader or a banker or what but he’s a man out for revenge (which I suppose you could/should put on business cards).  His mentor and boss (Frank Langella) commits suicide when the financial company belonging to Bretton James (Josh Brolin) somehow tanks the stock of Jacob’s company.  Jacob is aiming to bring down James’ company…and then ends up working for James because James has the power to fund Jacob’s pet project concerning fusion power.  Shoehorned into this is Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), out of prison and on a book tour.  Gekko is also estranged from his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who just so happens to be engaged to Jacob.  Jacob wants the two to reconcile, but he also desperately wants a father figure out of Gekko.

Part of what makes the financial industry so frustrating is how complicated it is.  The first Wall Street was loaded down in jargon, but it was simply window-dressing for a streamlined plot about a naive young man who makes a deal with the devil only to discover that the devil doesn’t care about who he stabs in the back.  The devil may be back for Money Never Sleeps, but Stone has no idea what to do with him.  One of the best moments in Wall Street is Gekko’s famous “Greed is good,” speech (even though that’s not the exact quote).  In the sequel, Gekko’s big speech is a clumsy montage of various kernels of wisdom.  It doesn’t even really feel like we’re meeting Gekko until the third act.  For most of the movie he’s simply Gordon Sad-Old-Man-Looking-for-Redemption.

Because of this poor lack of characterization on Gekko, Douglas doesn’t get a chance to shine until the end of the movie (which is then undermined by a cheap, unearned denouement).  Thankfully, the rest of the cast does fantastic work.  LaBeouf and Mulligan have wonderful chemistry, and Brolin is sinister but not in an overt, scenery-chewing way.  The fact that their characters are poorly defined on paper is an even larger testament to the confidence of the performances.

If only Stone had the same confidence in his picture.  However, his direction feels gimmicky, with silly editing tricks and little need to use them.  For example, a scene where Stone super-imposes the head of Jacob’s co-worker over Winnie’s body during a phone call (because Jacob is in love with his job, get it!) is distracting rather than thoughtful.  Into this mixture of hazily-defined relationships and baffling financial intrigue, the financial collapse becomes a plot point and while its integration is clever, it doesn’t feel meaningful.  To Stone’s credit, the use of the historical event doesn’t feel parasitic, but it does feel like a huge missed opportunity.

Once again, Oliver Stone is attempting to step into the conversation of current events but has nothing to say.  The return of Gordon Gekko may be the selling point, but its worth is over-inflated.  Stone’s cast serves him well, but ultimately there’s only so much they can do when the script is so ham-handed that it tries to do things like craft a metaphor relating financial bubbles to human evolution.  Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps ends up being as confusing and irritating as the financial crisis that inspired it.

Rating: C –


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