The modern progenitor of that kind of film (and this time I mean it in a completely sarcasm-free way) was Oliver Stone’s original “Wall Street.” With its ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’-like capturing of the men of Wall Street of the 1980s, the reproduction was so good that it actually spurned real people on to replicate the actions of its characters, usually completely missing the satire attached.
It’s only fitting then that the return to Wall Street moralizing is being lead by Stone’s new sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”
After spending five years in and out of court, and another eight in prison itself, infamous inside trader Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is finally released from prison–unloved and unmourned–in time to watch the age of the accounting scandal unfold with Enron and WorldCom and the rest. Quickly fast forward several years to the eve of the 2008 collapse and Gekko has moved into the unlikely role of Cassandra, warning futilely about oncoming doom.
Sequels are difficult under the best of circumstances, repeating what everyone liked the first time around (nevermind everyone usually likes something different) while also changing and developing your story. Add twenty years on top of that, and with the original a complex character drama and you’ve got tough road to hoe.
It’s to Stone’s great credit, who has been hit or miss as a director over the last decade, that for the most part he pulls it off. “Money Never Sleeps” is not up to the snuff of the original, but well-written, well-performed characters keep you engrossed about caring as their world falls apart.
Part of its strength is the fact that it has been so long in the making. With twenty-three years worth of water under the bridge Gekko has changed, we hope, and so has Douglas, with an older, wiser actor bringing an older, wiser villain to the screen to deal with problems he probably never expected.
The great trader has found himself facing the one thing he can’t influence or bargain with: time. With the knowledge that there are fewer days ahead than behind, Gekko has become obsessed with reconciling with his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). She blames him for her brother’s suicide from the stress of Gekko’s trial, and hasn’t spoken to him in years. His only option is to make good with her fiancé, Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a Wall Street trader during the worst time to be a trader. After Jake’s firm (an amalgam of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers) is torpedoed, Gekko offers to help him take his revenge in exchange for aid gaining Winnie’s trust again.
On a purely human level, “Money Never Sleeps” is often extremely well done. Forgoing the urge to replay the original Gekko in all his suave viciousness, Stone and Douglas are taking advantage to explore the man as a man; a man who loves his children and feels pain at their loss, a man who is much more aware of his own personal faults and what they have cost him. And they do it without ever costing Gekko his edge. Despite his pleas, Winnie is certain he is after some larger, more nefarious goal and the question hangs over everything he says and does. Does he really want to make up with his daughter, or he does he just want access to her trust fund? Is it possible for the Gekko to really change his spots (so to speak)? Douglas plays the two competing propositions relentlessly and with skill, walking the fine line between affability and narcissism in a way the old Gekko could never have pulled off.
He’s matched in by most of the performers around him as well, who make the most out of sometimes extremely limited roles. Josh Brolin as the hedge fund manager, Bretton James, who ruined Jake’s company and may have turned in evidence against Gekko once upon a time is the picture of an oily trader. It’s pretty hard to be the villain in a film about a classic villain, but Brolin gives it his best, encapsulating the sheer arrogance of the top of the Wall Street food chain. And the always reliable Frank Langella plays off equally well as the anti-Bretton, the old guard who believes in doing things square who has found the world has moved on around him.
Most importantly, considering he gets most of the film’s screen time (even though his story is not his own), LaBeouf proves that given an actual multi-faceted adult to play he can do so, and so well. Like all young traders, Jake wants to be one of the big boys, even if it means going to work for his rival. One of the great pleasures of the film, in fact, is watching Jake come unraveled as his various well-intentioned deceits pile up around him, like a living approximation of the stock market he’s working in.
The only actor, unfortunately, to not get the benefit of these stories is Mulligan, who never has an opportunity to do much beyond being a foil for whatever the plot requires, often with quite a bit of mood whiplash involved. In one scene, as Jake tries to talk her into signing her trust fund over to him, she has to go from incredulity to anger to gleeful acceptance, all within the space of about 45 seconds.
And for all “Money Never Sleeps” does well from its strangely compelling David Byrne soundtrack to its elegant camerawork from Rodrigo Prieto its reach often outstrips its grasp.
Unsurprisingly for a Stone film, there seems to be an irresistible urge to pack as much commentary as possible about the economic collapse and the world that engendered, and that’s on top of a film already packed with character and drama.
What you end up with are essentially five different plots all working at once and not always to each other’s benefit. Centrally to everything, you have Jake’s relationship with Winnie and Gekko’s attempts to worm his way into it. At the same time there are various subplots about the collapse itself, trying to point a heavy hand at the greed which caused it (embodied by real estate speculator Susan Sarandon as Jake’s Mother), and the way traders ostensibly knew it was coming and began placing bets against it to make money on the collapse without warning anyone about their suspicions.
If that weren’t a wide enough field, Stone tries to drag clean energy into the fold as well, as embodied in Jake’s idealistic boosting of an experimental fusion lab who he is trying to raise money for, but which mainly exists to show that a) Jake is a good guy (because he really believes in clean energy, not just money) and b) big oil is keeping clean energy from every happening by forcing money to be spent only on projects which won’t work. If that sounds like a real stretch to add in just in the description of it, it is even more so in the film.
It mainly becomes noticeably in the last act, which is given over to quite a bit of moralizing, something which intuitively only Gekko is actually good at. After two hours of drama and an intentional, artistic lack of satisfaction (building Gekko into a monster who understands what he is but can’t do anything about it) everything gets pushed aside for an attempt at a feel good ending that no one has done anything to earn.
It’s too bad, there really is a lot to like about “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” but ultimately, like the trader’s they’re chronicling, the filmmakers are unable to resist the impulse to have their cake and eat it too. It’s still worth a look for Douglas’ excellent portrayal of aging, reflective villainy, but it could have been much more.