"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared over at Edward Copeland's blog, Edward Copeland on Film. You can also access my article on the original film, here.

It has been over 20 years since Wall Street (1987) was released in theaters and, at the time, it was blamed for cashing in on the stock market crash that wiped out more than a few people’s fortunes. The financial landscape has changed radically since then and so, in many ways, has Oliver Stone’s career. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he was on an unbelievable roll, cranking out controversial, headline-grabbing films like Platoon (1986), JFK (1991) and Natural Born Killers (1994). And then he made Nixon (1995), arguably his most ambitious and complex (both stylistically and content-wise) film to date – critics were divided and audiences failed to show up.

Stone continued to plug along gamely but after his long-time director of photography Robert Richardson left after the neo-noir oddity U-Turn (1997), the director lost his most important creative collaborator. Any Given Sunday (1999) was an energetic if not flawed expose of professional American football and well, let’s just say that the 2000s have not been kind to him (see Alexander, World Trade Center and W.). With the release of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), there’s a glimmer of hope that this new project might be a return to form for the auteur. He’s never done a sequel before but with how radically the financial world has changed since 9/11 it is an intriguing prospect to see what a character like Gordon Gekko would be doing now. With recent scandals like Enron and Dow Jones meltdown in 2008, a Wall Street sequel is very timely.

It’s 2001 and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) has been released from prison. There’s no one to pick him up and instead he’s handed a check for $1,800 and a train ticket. Seven years later, he’s peddling a book, Is Greed Good? and trying to get back into the game. Meanwhile, Jacob “Jake” Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a young and ambitious proprietary trader working Keller Zabel. This whiz kid is trying to develop an alternative energy project. Stone immerses us in the trading floor and boy, does it look different than it did back in 1987. The technology, obviously, is vastly different but the frenetic energy is still the same. Jake is living with and engaged to a beautiful young woman named Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who is an Internet journalist working for a liberal-minded website. Oh yeah, her estranged father just happens to be Gekko, much to her chagrin.

When Jake’s investment firm’s stock takes a major hit, his distraught and disillusioned mentor Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella) is pushed out of the company by ruthless hedge fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Devastated and humiliated, Zabel takes his own life. Jake goes to see Gekko speak and is impressed by what the man has to say. Maybe he’s found a new mentor. Afterwards, Jake meets Gekko and tells him about his plans to marry Winnie. They strike a deal: Jake will help Gekko reconcile with his daughter and in return Gekko will help Jake exact some payback on James, the man who sent Zabel over the edge.

With Gekko’s help, Jake does some digging and spreads a few rumors that cause Churchill Schwartz, the company that James works for, to take a notable hit. Impressed by what he did, James hires Jake because after all, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Jake naturally accepts as it brings him in close proximity to James so that he can ultimately bring him down. And like that, it’s on with Jake and James going after each other with Gekko as the wild card, begging the question, what is his stake in all this?

Shia LaBeouf, an actor known for mindless blockbusters (Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls) and generic thrillers (Disturbia and Eagle Eye), finally shows some actual acting chops in his first legitimate dramatic role that has him up against heavyweights like Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin and Frank Langella – guys that can really act. Being in their company forces LaBeouf to raise his game and he holds his own. This time around, it is LaBeouf who is the idealistic young man swimming with the sharks and in danger of being seduced by lots of money.

It is great to see Michael Douglas back in his most famous role and he slips back into it effortlessly. Gekko is as cagey as ever and like Jake we’re never quite sure what his true intentions are but one thing’s for sure, he’s not to be underestimated. And Douglas does a nice job hinting at the dangerous Gekko that lurks under his smiling façade. Gekko appears to want to make amends with his daughter but as we well know from the first film, he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve and with all the cunning of an exceptional card player.

Josh Brolin plays a smug, cigar-smoking shark with no heart. He’s a grinning, deliciously evil bad guy. Carey Mulligan doesn’t have much to do but does a fine job with what she has to work with, especially a scene where Winnie and Gekko finally have it out over how his dirty financial dealings destroyed their family. One of the weak spots of the original Wall Street was Bud Fox’s relationship with his love interest, a vapid interior designer, and Stone tries not to make the same mistake with this film by casting a stronger actress with Mulligan and by placing a bigger emphasis on the relationship between Jake and Winnie. However, the film stalls when the focus shifts to them when we really should be tracking Jake plotting revenge on James.

The screenplay throws all kinds of financial jargon at the audience but it is all really window-dressing because all that matters is what it all means and Stone makes sure that we understand the bottom line. The dialogue still has some of the crackle and pop of the original film, especially in a good scene where Gekko and James spar verbally. If there is one glaring flaw in this film it is the overuse of David Byrne songs to the point of distraction. Each cue puts too fine a point on the scene with lyrics that spell out exactly what we are watching. Not to mention the songs are milquetoast drivel robbing the film of its fast-moving momentum at times. Also, the warm, cuddly vibe of the epilogue that plays over the closing credits has got to go. It shows Gekko in a way that just seems out of character and feels like Stone hedged his bets to give the audience a more palatable ending.

Stone does a good job of keeping things visually interesting but the cinematography lacks the energy and that special something that Robert Richardson brought to the first film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is easily the best film Stone’s done since Any Given Sunday. Of course, that’s not saying much but at least it feels like the kind of film Stone used to make back in his prime. There is a confidence that comes with being back on familiar turf that Stone displays with this film. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is just the kind of film that he needs to reinvigorate his career and remind us why we regarded his films so highly in the first place.


  1. Great to hear some good buzz on this Stone film, Im curious myself to revisit Gordon Gecko, see how time has treated the bastard.

    Situation with LeBouf is similart to Sheen's when he did the first Wall Street. It's a young actor trying to build up his credibility in Hollywood by making a film that truly defies his abilities. Glad to see that LeBeouf showed what his made of, I cant stand him in blockbusters, he is kind of annoying somehow. Im curious to see how he acts amongst such big talent.

    Great review!

  2. A great review, J.D. I agree with much of it. Stone has that verve back with this film, and working with Douglas and this stellar and quintessential character from the 80's made for some great moments and magic here. Some of these (that I enjoyed most) were some of the places he went back to from the first film (like the park outside Tavern on the Green) and the previous characters. Gordon and Bud's revisit was the obvious trope of the U.S. seduction by Wall Street.

    Susan Sarandon, as Jake's mother, appears to be Stone's other surrogate character for those of us who've become hooked on debt. Her son's solution for the woman was like that argued for by the realist TV financial pundits in the background of an earlier scene. I thought his use of the financial jargon somewhat window dressing, but was relatively accurate (at least by my reading of the book, 13 Bankers).

    I completely agree with you regarding the musical pieces and those scenes at the end credits. Let's hope for a future director's cut (like he did for ALEXANDER) that fixes that. However, I think The Man is back! And we need his likes... desperately. Especially with some of what the studios are heaping upon audiences these days. Stone is going to direct the film adaptation of one the best books I read this year: Don Winslow's SAVAGES. If you get to read it, you'll see why he's the perfect director for this.

    I'm so glad you examined this film, J.D., and did your usual marvelous examination. Thanks for this.

  3. The Film Connoisseur:

    Yeah, I think you'll dig it, esp. if you're a fan of the first film.

    Good comparison between LaBeouf and Sheen. I'm sure Stone had that in mind when he cast him... that and the box office as well. heh.


    Wow! Thanks for your incredible comments. Some terrific observations...

    I too enjoyed all the references to the first film, including Charlie Sheen's cameo and his refs to key lines of dialogue from the original. That made me smile.

    Good call on Sarandon's character. I thought that too but you really went into detail about what her character represents in the film.

    I haven't read SAVAGES but I am intrigued, esp. if that's Stone' next film.

  4. I liked the original Wall Street very much, mainly because of its energy and its strident critic against the personal and professional excesses from the North American financial leaders, but I could not understand very well some elements from the screenplay, due to the fact I am not very familiarized with economic issues.The financial jargon in the sequel,
    Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
    is more comprehensible (at least in my case), because it revolves around the worldwide economic crisis from 2008, and which keeps being felt to nowadays.Besides, I have to say I liked this fascinating sequel a bit more than the original film.

  5. Free Best Movies:

    That's an interesting take. I actually found it the opposite. I found the financial jargon in the sequel harder to understand than the original. I have to give it to the original just because I think the script and the performances are stronger.