20th Century Fox
Oliver Stone's new movie, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, opens with a man having his personal effects restored to him as he is released from prison: "One silk handkerchief. One necktie. One watch. One ring." I confess I half-expected this accounting to culminate with the punch line that Frank Oz offered John Belushi under identical circumstances at the beginning of The Blues Brothers: "One unused prophylactic..."—a wrinkle of the nose, the adoption of tweezers—"one soiled."
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The felon in question is corporate raider Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), last seen as the embodiment of amok capitalism in Stone's 1987 film Wall Street. But prison has apparently reprogrammed Gekko, who returns, Schwarzenegger-like, as a "good" high-finance Terminator promising to help a young hero (Shia LaBeouf) combat the rise of the newer, sleeker model (Josh Brolin). Gekko has retired his iconic catchphrase, "Greed is good," and he will spend the remainder of the movie crisscrossing the econo-moral spectrum in search of a new one ("when I was away, it seems greed got greedier"; "money's the bitch that never sleeps"; "a fisherman always sees another fisherman from afar"; "it's not about the money, it's about the game"). Between test-driving such mottos, he gives speeches decrying the destructive and unsustainable nature of American banking to bait-breathed financial aspirants.
One such is Jacob Moore (LaBeouf), a young trader teetering between idealism (his fiancée calls him "Mr. Green Energy") and avarice ("the only green is money," he retorts). Fans of the first Wall Street will recall that this is precisely the narrative role filled by Charlie Sheen last time around. (Yes, the fact that concepts such as "Charlie Sheen" and "innocence" might ever have coexisted is a sad reminder of time's passage.) Though Sheen will appear in a brief, this-is-your-life cameo later in the film, he is otherwise absent, detained by his fractional obligations as two-fifths of Two and a Half Men.
The year is 2008, just before the Fall (in both senses). Jacob works for a small investment firm run by an old-school banker, Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella), who is befuddled by the changes in his profession. (At one point he asks, adorably, "How do you make money on losses?") The firm is in trouble, though it is initially unclear—at least to those who have never seen an Oliver Stone movie—whether its misfortune is due to negligence, bad luck, or Evil Forces Lurking in the Background. In any case, the firm soon collapses and is snatched up by predatory banker Bretton James (Brolin). Shortly thereafter, Zabel himself exits the film, after enjoying the most morally freighted bag of potato chips I believe I've ever seen. (That the paradigm of paternal decency and restraint embodied by Martin Sheen's blue-collar airline worker in the original Wall Street is now represented by a multimillionaire banker is perhaps the film's most pointed commentary on our times.)
Jacob believes that his firm's failure was deliberately engineered by Bretton—the man's name, after all, is "Bretton," which in a film like this might as well be horns—and he swears revenge. But when he springs his trap, Bretton, impressed by the boy's chutzpah, offers him a job. (Note to impressionable young moviegoers: in job-application circles, swindling a potential employer out of hundreds of millions of dollars is not typically considered a good way to get yourself "noticed.")
As it happens, Jacob is also engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), and he begins meeting with his potential father-in-law behind his fiancée's back. At first, the intent of these encounters is to arrange a family rapprochement. But over time their purpose shifts, as Jacob seeks to profit from the old wheeler-dealer's accumulated wisdom and festering antipathy toward Bretton.
The requisite political boxes are all dutifully penciled in: a mom (Susan Sarandon, in her most thankless role since Elizabethtown) who gave up "making a difference" as a nurse in order to become an over-extended real estate speculator? Check. Winnie's job managing a muckraking lefty blog? Check. Credit default swaps, "too big to fail," the complicit mainstream media? Check, check, check.
If this all sounds unerringly silly, well, that's because it is. Yet, against all probability, Money Never Sleeps is a watchable enough movie for its first hour or so. The leads are all sharp, and well within their characterological comfort zones. Stone's showy array of directorial gimmicks—split screens every time someone makes a phone call, Tron-like images of financial data charging through three-dimensional space, stop-motion segues of the Manhattan sky and rivers—contribute to an air of childish whimsy, whether or not that was his intent. And the accompanying songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno (more '80s nostalgia), though incongruous, are nevertheless catchy.
But as the financial bubble pops, so too does the cinematic one. Gloomy portents notwithstanding, it was easily enough for the movie to breeze along with the gust of capitalist excess at its back. But around the midpoint it begins flagging, and not even an exceptionally pointless motorcycle race between Jacob and Bretton can rouse it from its doldrums. There are tears and recriminations to come, innumerable invocations of the phrase "moral hazard," a not-at-all-unforeseeable betrayal, and a risibly feeble bid for redemption. (Let's just say that any film in which investing $100 million in a for-profit nuclear fusion company is described, without irony, as the "most charitable" act to which a person could aspire, is a film that has succumbed to some moral hazards of its own.)
By chance or design, Stone grants final word on the financial collapse to no fewer than two characters: Winnie, whose tiny liberal website brings the titans of Wall Street to their knees; and an elderly banker played by Eli Wallach, who bids the era adieu with an odd kind of a tootling birdcall. In both cases, the message seems the same: This is how the economic world ends, not with a bang but a tweet.
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