Like the economic bubbles that are discussed throughout it, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps seems like it’s going to have a huge payoff, but bursts before that happens.
As the film opens, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) walks out of prison, and finds nobody there to pick him up. We’re then introduced to Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young and hungry financier convinced that green technology is the next big thing. However, after fellow financial whiz Bretton James (Josh Brolin) destroys the firm Jake works for -- and in turn Jake’s mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) -- the now revenge-driven junior executive meets Gordon, who is speaking at a local university about the evils of the current financial climate. Complicating matters is the fact that Gordon’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), and Jake are engaged. Gordon wants back in her life, and offers to trade Jake tips on how to get back at Bretton in exchange for access to his daughter. While Gordon’s dealings with Jake appear to be on the level, Winnie continues to insist she wants nothing to do with her father -- concerns that seem justified as Gordon begins manipulating Jake into getting him access to Winnie’s 100-million-dollar trust fund.
Say this for the movie, much of it is fun. As a pulpy drama set in the very recent past, Money Never Sleeps feels perfectly timed to capitalize on our current economic troubles for the same reason that Dallas became a smash TV show during a protracted recession in the ’70s -- regular people want to live vicariously through rich and powerful people’s lives, but still be assured that the movers and shakers are amoral a-holes. And if the screenplay didn’t soften that blow in the final act, you get the sense that Stone would have had his first culturally impactful work since JFK. The director is in full command of his material and his skills for the first time in over a decade, effortlessly throwing out stylish -- if not exactly necessary -- split screens and special effects. He seems artistically alive, and an engaged Oliver Stone is a very good thing for movies in general.
He gets good work from his actors as well. Once LaBeouf lays off the overly thick New York accent he starts the movie with, you can see why Stone was drawn to cast him as an ambitious but honest hero who slowly gets sucked into a world of corruption. Michael Douglas slips back into Gordon Gekko’s skin like it’s a favorite power suit, and while he comes awful close to chewing on the scenery, Stone keeps things at such an elevated emotional pitch that Gordon’s flowery monologues never feel out of place. And in the scene that requires the most from him as an actor -- Gordon’s heart-wrenching attempt to explain himself to his grown daughter -- Douglas is flawless, never letting us know for sure if this antihero’s confessions are heartfelt, or just another ploy to get the best deal. It doesn’t hurt that he gets to play the scene with Mulligan, an actress talented enough to convince us of both Winnie’s emotional vulnerability and the steely resolve she no doubt inherited from her dad.
In films like Salvador, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July, Stone expertly tapped into righteous anger -- both his own and the public’s -- in order to feed his effective, if often overwrought, style and themes. The best aspect of Money Never Sleeps is its lightness; he’s still angry, but he’s having some fun, much like he did throughout the paranoid fever dream that was JFK. Where it disappoints is the shift in the third act from fun to soft. If he’d dropped the film’s closing 20 minutes, he would have improved a great deal on the original Wall Street. As it is, though, this new Wall Street is his best film in over a decade, but it’s hard to shake the sneaking suspicion that Stone -- like his most famous character -- is mellowing. If that’s true, he’s going to have to look to something other than anger for inspiration.
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