Monday, May 13, 2013

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

As entertaining as director/writer Oliver Stone's 1987 WALL STREET was, I never considered it to be a strong treatise on the pitfalls of capitalism or a pointed cinematic essay of any sort. Nor did I ever think it resembled a Swiftian satire on greed. The film announced early on that it was a pop entertainment pure and simple. Still, the movie became emblematic of the Michael Milken era, opening around the time of the infamous 1987 market crash. It seemed prescient. Iconic too. In the 2002 film BOILER ROOM, the main characters watch and chant along with it.

WALL STREET's morality play ended with Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), a hungry, young would-be player, being indicted for insider trading. He had spent the film playing sycophant to Wall Street titan Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and his efforts proved to be a bit too aggressive. At the opening of WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (2010), a prison guard is returning Gekko's inventory to him, including one of those gigantic 90s era cell phones. The mighty finally got his own just desserts, some years after the events of the first movie. Gekko would serve almost a decade behind bars. Throughout this new film, he repeatedly describes his sentence as the best thing that ever happened to him. During that time, he pens a memoir.

MONEY NEVER SLEEPS features Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), a successful trader at a top firm managed by Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, excellent in his all too brief appearance), his mentor. Jake is living with Gekko's long estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who has zero interest in reestablishing contact. After a disastrous attempt to secure a fair bailout deal with other firms, Zabel takes his life.

Following Gekko's speech to graduating college seniors (he opens with, appropriately enough, "You're fucked.") Jake introduces himself and initiates a series of secret meetings to gather info on a snake named Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the same man who made that insulting offer to Zabel. But life is short and quid pro quo, and while Gekko seems to have mellowed and repented (and perhaps been  humbled as he is now all but a pariah on Wall Street), he will only help Jake on an exchange - efforts to help a reconciliation with his daughter.

As MONEY NEVER SLEEPS plot progresses, Jake will accept a job with Bretton (what a perfect spot to plot revenge!) and tries to mend fences between father and daughter. Bud Fox even shows up for a cameo, updating us on what happened to Blue Star airlines and uttering a famous line from the earlier film. In a strange way, this moment gets to the heart of the film. Life moved on. Gekko has a few surprises of his own to unveil. The final scene is an unfortunate bit of Hollywood schmaltz.

It seemed a perfect time for a WALL STREET sequel, if there had to be one at all (even Stone wasn't convinced at first). What with the greatest market meltdown since the Great Depression and all. Although, plans for this film began a few years earlier. This film attempts to shoehorn the crisis into the events of the movie,  albeit a bit clumsily. Perhaps the starting point should have been the crash, and then focused on the fallout. Instead, we have tired familial dealings, recollections (son's death, divorce) that come from the Syd Mead playbook. And what's up with Eli Wallach's odd birdcalls?

To me, this movie, like its predecessor, is decidedly middle of the road, with minimal financial illuminations and long on plot. It is entertaining, with decent performances and the occasional enjoyable throwaway bit (the fast cab driver scene). The first film was semi-high brow popcorn, a satisfying tale that avoided deadly long winded explanations ala THE FORMULA and ROLLOVER. MONEY NEVER SLEEPS relies a bit too often on flashy ticker graphics and split screens, but is an agreeable couple of hours.  No inherent philosophy, but for those who remember the first film, there is a certain fascination in seeing the "Later on", how the Mighty have fallen, and how what was once so urgent is now just a chuckle, a punchline ("Blue Star Loves Anacot Steel").

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