Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (review)

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Cabal of Cash

It’s sort of adorable and sort of terrifying to look at Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and see the ultimate 80s icon of sharky, sociopathic greed — Gordon Gekko — reduced to an object of quaint amusement, for both the characters onscreen and for us in the viewing audience. Is this the guy, this washed-up old man who looks in the light of the Great Recession like a small-time operator, who inspired such widespread handwringing, such pop-culture agita back in the day? How wonderfully naive we were about how much damage the moneychangers could do to us.
Gekko is back in Oliver Stone’s followup to 1987’s Wall Street, but just barely. It’s 2008, and he has been out of prison for seven years, living relatively modestly on the sales of his book, Is Greed Good? He talks to university students, tells ’em flat out things such as “The mother of all evil is speculation,” that credit default swaps are the real weapons of mass destruction, that their generation is fucked, financially. Gordon Gekko today is, god help us, a voice of reason. And Michael Douglas (Solitary Man, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) slips so smoothly back into the role that even we, who know him for a villain, cannot help but be charmed, if we’re also put on our guard.

Gekko is still the bad guy, of course, but he simply cannot hope to measure up against the villainy of the financial criminals running Wall Street in 2008, the ones he is now outside looking in on. If JFK was Stone’s paean to the conspiracy theories surrounding a presidential assassination, then Money Never Sleeps is his sickening portrait of conspiracy fact — this is only gussied up as fiction — about the billionaires who see $120 million as “not a great deal of money” and collude to maintain the financial circle jerk that props them all up. It looks like something out of the most paranoid of fantasies, when Stone places the masters of Wall Street — played by actors including Frank Langella (The Box, The Tale of Despereaux) and Eli Wallach (The Ghost Writer, The Holiday) — around a conference table at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City and lets them connive ways they can prevent their own bad acts from bringing them down… and get even richer in the process by getting the Federal government to pay off their debts. At first I considered that Josh Brolin’s (Jonah Hex, Women in Trouble) chillingly banal demeanor as the cunning head of one brokerage house might be the scariest thing about the movie, but then I realized that what’s worse is the fact that there isn’t even a passionate Kevin Costner prosecutor in the mix here to hammer home that a crime was committed and someone must be punished for it: the Wall Street bailout was committed out in the open, and no one watching even seemed to care much.

This is, in some aspects, a much more cynical flick than the first one was. The two giant hard-ons of the Twin Towers that dominated the skyline of Lower Manhattan in Wall Street are pointedly absent here (the film even pauses momentarily to contemplate Ground Zero at one low point in the story); the aggression of the 80s has laid waste to a metaphoric landscape, and that aggression has morphed into a norm that barely stands out anymore. Even the few spots of idealism in Money Never Sleeps feel oddly muted and contradicted. Our putative hero, hotshot trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Eagle Eye) — who is engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan: Brothers , Public Enemies) — has a pet project he’s been pushing to anyone who will listen: a green energy experimental fusion power plant that needs an infusion of $100 million if it’s going to keep operating. But unlike his 1987 counterpart, Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, who propped up a failing airline and saved working-class employees (including his own father) from layoffs, Jake is a true dreamer in a realm that has no use for dreamers. It’s as if the film — the script is by Allan Loeb (21) and Stephen Schiff (True Crime) — is suggesting, by the outrageousness of Jake’s idealism, that idealism is an even tougher attitude to maintain today than it was in 1987, which looked pretty damn cold and hard at the time.

If the last few minutes of the film end up clashing rather jarringly with all that has come before, then… well, it’s the only major problem with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and one I was able to forgive, because everything that came before was so dynamically told a tale from a filmmaker who is a master of visual storytelling. The opening sequence presents modern-day New York as a lively, energetic place without resorting of any of the usual clichés… and Stone’s witty eye makes sharp points wherever he turns it, as when he focuses on the diamonds dripping from the women at a Wall Street charity function. This is an enormously entertaining film, and a rather scary one, too. For if Gordon Gekko was a warning back in 1987, should we take his reappearance as yet another foreshadowing of further financial doom to come?

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