Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps / *** (PG-13)

Jake Moore: Shia LaBeouf
Gordon Gekko: Michael Douglas
Bretton James: Josh Brolin
Winnie Gekko: Carey Mulligan
Jules Steinhardt: Eli Wallach
Jake’s Mother: Susan Sarandon
Louis Zabel: Frank Langella

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, based on characters created by Stanley Weiser & Oliver Stone. Running time: 133 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language and thematic elements).

When I first heard the notion that Oliver Stone was thinking of making a sequel to his 1987 indictment of stock trading in “Wall Street”, I thought it was a gag, like having Buck Henry pitch a sequel to “The Graduate” at the beginning of the movie “The Player”.  Surely, this was a joke of some kind. It turns out that not only did Stone have more to say on the subject, but what he has to say this time around is very different and from a completely new perspective.

The story centers on a young up and coming trader named Jake Moore. He’s a top trader for a company that is about to go down with the bursting Wall Street bubble in late 2008. Jake is hell bent on backing the next bubble, which he sees to be green energy. He works with a scientist to get backing for the development of fusion-based energy, but with the market crumbling around him, it becomes difficult to even get his own mentor on board.

At higher levels of the financial houses, execs and accounting houses are being sacrificed to postpone the inevitable crash and government bailout. Bretton James (Josh Brolin, “W.”), an executive with one of the largest trading companies, feels that a smaller company, like Jake’s, isn’t worth the government handout. When James makes a deal that will kill the company, the CEO and Jake’s mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”), decides to take his own life. Jake sees James’s actions as a personal attack and seeks revenge.

Meanwhile, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas reprising his Oscar-winning role from the original), after serving an unheard of eight-year sentence for insider trading, has been quietly surviving his post prison years off the sales of a best-selling book and lecturing about his experience on Wall Street. Gekko happens to be the father of Jake’s fiancĂ©e, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, “An Education”), who wants nothing to do with him. Jake goes to one of Gekko’s lectures, out of curiosity about his infamy, and introduces himself afterward. The two enter into a trade of their own; Gekko will help Jake take revenge on James if Jake will help him mend his relationship with his daughter. There is a sense that Jake may be getting a little more than he bargained for.

The major difference between the two “Wall Street” films lies in the protagonists. While the original’s hero Budd Fox was an idealist, Shia LaBeouf (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), as Jake Moore, is more of a realist. Although he is a Wall Street insider, he retains his connections with the rest of the world through ties that allow him to feel the economic crisis caused by Wall Street’s bad investments on more of an everyman level. His mother (Susan Sarandon, “The Lovely Bones”) is a Realtor reeling from the collapsing house market, begging her son for money that even he no longer has. Charlie Sheen makes a cameo appearance as Fox to punctuate their character differences.  We learn that Fox has become just as greedy and jaded as his former nemesis, Gekko, who bears no hard feelings having seen that his corruption of Fox eventually took hold.

Stone’s direction is more artful the second time around as he uses various stylistic visuals to emphasize many of the plot’s developments. Stone uses editing techniques, including image overlays, diminishing irises, and wipes that add some artistic flair on top of the drama. Unlike much of his mid career work, his visual style and editing is never imposing here. It’s subtle and works to support the dramatic material, rather than distract from it.

What prevents this “Wall Street” from being a great film, however, is its resolution. While Gekko’s actions throughout the film are finely calculated and perfectly supported by his philosophy and previously established character, his actions in the final moments are completely out of character and weaken the themes of the film. It seems as if Stone was taken over by the spirit of Steven Spielberg while wrapping up this story and couldn’t resist the notion of putting a nice, happy ribbon on everything for our protagonist. Perhaps he felt he had no other choice than to put a smiley face on the final moments of the movie, because had he gone where the ultimately dire implications the story naturally were headed, he would have one totally depressing mess. Of course, that is exactly where we, as a country, are finding ourselves.

I didn’t come out of this movie thinking everything would come up roses the way it did for our hero Jake. That may be why I didn’t want to see it happen that way on screen. However, this false ending isn’t enough to ruin the entire movie, which is fascinating in its depiction of the business of Wall Street. Stone chooses his cast well and makes it difficult not to root, a little bit, for Gekko. Brolin adds to his renaissance as a major player here, and LaBeouf proves, once again, that he makes for an easy hero. Despite it’s compromised ending, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” makes for a powerful commentary on the perversion of capitalism in our society.

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