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Non-Review Review: Wall Street – Money Never Sleeps

The words “too big to fail” are, understandably, bandied around quite a bit over the course of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. While they refer, of course, to the bloated financial institutions holding the world’s democracy to ransom, it’s hard not to get a sense that they could also apply to Stone’s film. The financial crisis continues to prove that Stone’s original Wall Street was a powerful condemnation of all-consuming unchecked capitalism, and one might assume that the timing is right for a sequel. Indeed, Stone’s attempts to make his movie reflect on the harsh economic climate are admirable – but one gets the sense that the director is unable to decide where to focus the camera. As a result, the film loses a lot of its punch as it jumps around from macro-economics to personal tragedies without thinking too much of the gap between them.

Family fortunes?

There’s also the fact that Stone’s film seems to have fallen prey to its own hype. There are a whole host of stories about younger Wall Street types seeing Gordon Gekko as an icon to be emulated rather than a villain to be condemned, because greed – despite the fact it might not be good – is sexy. Money is alluring. Gekko refers to it as a “she” in the film, and money is undoubtedly a temptress. However, the original film rejected the advances of the seductress, finding her affections came at too high a cost – suggesting that money itself could corrupt even the most noble soul.

There’s a telling scene about half-way through Stone’s sequel. Gordon Gekko has been released from prison and is a pariah. People don’t even recognise him anymore. He’s served his time and emerged a seemingly changed and broke man. He’s paid the penalty. Then he stumbles across Bud Fox. Bud was the hero of the first film, the young stockbroker tempted and corrupted by Gekko with promises of money. When he discovered the money came at the cost of his family and friends, Bud decided the price was too high. He ended up broke and imprisoned, but with his honour intact. He ended up with nothing material, but Stone dared to suggest that he was the richer man for it.

On your bike?

Here Bud is introduced as the very spirit of opulence. He’s in a sharp suit, just retired running a hugely successful airline and flanked by two beautiful women. He doesn’t even need to work hard anymore, as he boasts to Gekko about taking up golf and “philanthropy”. The original film suggested that money and power inevitably corrupted, but here the tune has changed. Stone seems to believe that good and decent people can use money for the greater good without ending up as slaves to it. You don’t have to sell your principles in order to get rich.

It’s a very sharp change in tone, and one that doesn’t sit well. We’re continually shown throughout Stone’s film that men who wanted “more” were the ones that pushed the markets to the place they are now. Gekko’s “greed is good” mantra is rephrased as a question – “Is Greed Good?” Even decent, genial and – to quote Gekko – “honourable” old bankers (the kind whose surname is on the front door of the bank and who man the floor themselves) were fooled into making terrible mistakes. And yet Stone’s film seems to revel in the sort of extravagance which the original condemned.

It’s a donation – a transfer of wealth – which ties up the film’s plot and provides a happy ending. The act of giving and receiving a huge sum of money assures the film a far happier ending than the original, which was based on the assumption that loss was the only way that we might learn. Bud Fox is a wealthy and happy man, which undermines his decision in the earlier film to give up everything. While Bud started the original Wall Street with nothing who was living in a tiny bedsit and doing a crap job, Jake Moore essentially starts this movie as a millionaire handling $100m deals.

What does Josh Brolin bring to the table?

In fairness, I can see why Stone might change the basic arc of the story. Bud Fox went from a nobody to a somebody – he lived the American Dream and accomplished great things, playing out one of the most popular fantasies in existence. However, this financial crisis isn’t about that. It’s about higher middle-class individuals learning that they actually have nothing. So I can understand why Stone might put his main character on a different trajectory. Jake Moore has everything, and then loses it. It’s arguably more relevant than a rags-to-riches story.

However, the movie doesn’t quite pull that off. Jake is always comfortable – there’s never a sense that he’s struggling. The closest thing to a personal setback he faces is losing a $100m investment in sustainable fuels. Of course that’s a bad thing, but there’s never any sense that Jake is really going to go to prison. Even when he’s supposedly kicked out and broke, he can still jet set around the world without a hint of difficulty. Sure, he puts his relationship with his sweetheart, Winnie, at risk – but not through any improper financial activity, merely by talking to her father.

Can a Gekko change his... scales?

So, immediately, it’s hard to relate to the story that Stone is telling. Jake never feels like he’s suffering – certainly not when measured against those around him (including his former boss). Which is a shame, because Stone is an astute filmmaker. You don’t make a film like the original Wall Street by accident. This film fairly effectively explores the psychology which led to the boom and the bust. It’s very fond of the phrase “moral hazard”, and it offers several wonderful examples of the sort of self-perpetuating economic crisis we create even on a person-to-person scale – as Jake finds himself bailing out his own mother, repeatedly. It sounds like it could be corny, but it works.

Part of the reason is the cast. Susan Sarandan and Frank Langella put in two superb supporting performances in the film. The rest of the cast, with the exception of Douglas, is solidly efficient. Shia LaBeouf is actually fairly decent as Jake Moore – I get the sense that he’s hindered by script problems in trying to engage with the audience. Carey Mulligan is good, if unspectacular, as Winnie. Josh Brolin is effective as the film’s baddie. Eli Wallach continues to raise the quality of films simply by appearing in them. By the way, Jake’s ringtone is The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, in a nice little reference.

Douglas is Gordon Gekko. I could say more, but it would be redundant. The film is so scattershot that Gekko seems to wander in and out of the first two thirds like a lost child, but Douglas gives the character the sort of raw charisma which makes you wonder why the movie isn’t focused on him. The script humanises Gekko quite a bit, an element I’m not exactly comfortable with. It’s also clear that the writers here aren’t sure how to give his dialogue the snappy edge it had in the original (his best Gekko-ism here is “California has made more mistakes than Yogi Berra reciting Shakespeare” which is a poor showing, to be frank). However, Douglas makes it all work, against all odds. It, though, would be better if the film could decide whether Gekko is a lead or a supporting character.

He looks like a fund guy...

The lack of focus points to a weakness on Stone’s part. The original film might have been couched in the language of the time, and viewed through the lens of the financial industry, but it was essentially a morality play. It was a timeless story about power, wealth and friendship which was so primal and basic that had great resonance with audiences – it’s the same basic appeal of The Social Network, for example. Despite the setting, it was a straightforward film which was timeless. Here, however, Stone is too preoccupied with particulars. He dates the story, while trying to make it feel “modern”.

Some of these moments, such as the coverage of the financial crashes, feel like we’re watching a documentary rather than a feature film. They sit quite apart from the narrative, rather than engaging with it. They throw off the character dynamics and roles. Stone also tries to use the social media (specifically blogging) as a plot point which allows for a “happily enough ever after” sort of ending, which ends up seeming like an over-simplistic attempt to seem hip and modern.

Indeed, Stone consciously politicises the whole film. Some of this is quite intelligent and works really well – the presentation of the banks, for example, as “the evil empire” or the conspicuous use of Ground Zero in the background of certain shots. However, it also makes the film feel a lot more like a political football to be bunted around than a sort of classic apolitical morality tale. The oil companies are undermining research into sustainable fuels and the internet can put an end to corrupt social practices, while the bailout is tantamount to “socialism”. Each of these ideas is big and important enough to merit its own discussion, but they distract from the core point at the heart of the film – the true cost of the “more” philosophy that drives these banks, a price which is more fundamental than sustainable fuels, social media or political ideology. It tends to get lost in the shuffle.

Financial devastation...

That said, Stone is a great director. He can shoot the movie well. I particularly liked the overlays of stock prices against city backdrops, but he works well with the scenery too. David Byrne provides a wonderful soundtrack – with This Must Be The Place even showing up over the end credits. The film is certainly well-made and put together.

However, it’s just too inconsistent and wild. It’s all over the place. The original movie balanced the central character arc with the story of fundamental institutional corruption nearly perfectly. Here, Stone has difficulty relating those two – and then he tries to heap a whole bunch of hot-button current political ideas in on top of it. The film has a solid cast and some great ideas, but it’s just a bit disappointing that it can’t tell both its own story and that of the financial narrative in a single two-hour package.

6 Responses

  1. am also reviewing this this week – will be up tomorrow or day after. you can see what i thought of it then.
    have to agree with you on the music – Byrne’s voice is still great – and some of the plot (‘No mom, I cant lend you any money, Im broke. That $1m bonus i got five minutes ago has already been used up. You should really go back to doing something worthwhile, like nursing. I am a wall street trader. i am lecturing you. I’m Indiana Jones’ son!’)

    • Yep, Byrne is the man. I thought that was nuts.

      Ways to make your protagonist completely unrelatable: give him a $1m bonus and have him blow it in five minutes.

  2. I felt this movie was terrible. It literally put me to sleep. As you said, it’s all over the place and Gekko isn’t even the central character. Like most of Stone’s latest movies, it simply doesn’t know when to stop, dragging it out to a whole 2 hours and 10 minutes, a good 30 minutes too much.

    • Yep. I thought the biggest problem with Gekko was that he was a cameo for twenty minutes (ooohh… he’s lecturing on “Is Greed Good?”!), a supporting actor for twenty more (“hey, kid, want good advice from a Wall Street guy who has been to prison?”), wandered aimlessly for about an hour and then became a lead character for the last half hour or so. That’s not a fluid character arc by any measure.

  3. i dunno i kinda liked it. its a strange mix of a university lecture and a romantic comedy. it doesnt always work though. have to say, i quite liked it on dvd, i reckon if id paid to see this on big screen id have been a bit bored.
    ill-advised director cameo too

    • The cameo wasn’t half bad. He can’t act, but he didn’t give himself too many lines.

      Yep, it’s all that – and more! I think that’s the problem. Despite the jargon and the inside trading and such, the original Wall Street was simple and straightforward. You could follow it even if you didn’t know what a hedgefund was. It was the story of a young man learning that having everything isn’t always having anything. This film is just… all over the place.

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