I was looking forward to Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,
especially after seeing its prequel. The original Wall Street
didn’t exactly blow my socks off, but I appreciated the great acting and
the straightforward narrative wrapped in commentary about 1980s
economics. Oliver Stone clearly had a lot to say about insider trading
and financial maneuverings done without regard to the commoners being
inadvertently toyed with. Both of which went out of control in this last
economic crisis and I was waiting to see what more Stone had to say
about it. Turns out I was in for a disappointment.
Before I get to this movie’s failings, I should point out that this
is not a carbon copy of its prequel. For example, our protagonist this
time around is quite decidedly not the shrewd and ambitious Wall Street
grunt that Buddy Fox was. Rather, Jake Moore is a pure and simple
idealist. His goal in life is to raise money for investment into
something that will forever improve the world first and make a fortune
second. In keeping with the movie’s efforts to be timely, Jake’s primary
cause is in developing new means of clean, renewable energy.
Additionally, Jake is much better-established in life than Buddy was.
He’s got a (soon-to-be) fiancee, a sweet apartment and a comfy job in a
prestigious (fictional) banking firm — one of the first to go bust in
the banking crisis of 2008 and not one of those that got bailed out.
To that end, MNS isn’t the story of yet another persistent
white collar worker who dreams of power and wealth. It’s the story of a
Wall Street worker struggling to stay afloat after losing everything in
the crash. The stakes are also personal for our hero, as his beloved
boss and mentor kills himself at the start of the crash. The plot
thickens when the banking mogul who encouraged the suicide — and made a
ton of money from the firm’s collapse — offers Jake a job with him. I
was really excited about this. I thought it was going to be a novel spin
on the original’s plotline, in which using the boss’ resources to get
to the top only to screw him over wasn’t just the endgame but the goal
from day one. Alas, no such luck. Jake’s idealism and big mouth get him
fired and the subplot is woefully underutilized.
As said before, the original movie focused primarily on insider
trading and cold-hearted greed, using those as the foundation for the
story and heavily contemplating both. This movie, however, casts a much
wider net. We’ve got crooked real estate practices, the long-term
effects of bailouts, failure by incompetence, failure by corruption and
the role of independent media, in addition to the aforementioned topics
discussed by the previous movie. Predictably, this leads to a “quantity
before quality” approach, with several topics being discussed and none
of them with any depth. In fact, the satire and commentary in this film
doesn’t get anywhere near the screen time that goes to Gordon Gekko.
Yes, Michael Douglas returns to reprise his iconic character from the
first movie. It seems like Gekko’s turned over a new leaf at first.
Ever since he got out of prison seven years prior, he’s been talking
about how the old “greed is good” credo led the economy into an enormous
bubble that inevitably burst. Gekko actually says at quite a few points
that those who caused the banking crisis were bigger crooks than he
ever was. Alas, the old Gordon Gekko is still lying low, waiting for a
chance to get back in the game. I wouldn’t have minded that so much if
his storyline had anything to do or say about the current economic
times, but no such luck.
Instead, Gekko’s storyline mostly revolves around the triangle of
him, his estranged daughter Winnie and her fiancee, the aforementioned
Jake Moore. This storyline takes up most of the movie’s running time and
it has precious little to say about the current socio-economic climate
that isn’t already said elsewhere. However, I must admit that the actors
all make this arc watchable — Douglas in particular gets to take
Gekko to some new and interesting places — and the character
development is solid if predictable.
The acting in this movie is truly commendable. I know that Shia
LaBeouf has a ton of detractors and I’m expecting quite a few of them to
shut up after seeing his turn as this film’s leading man. He carries
the role with maturity, intelligence and confidence that I’ve never seen
from him before. Jake Moore is a man going through a ton of difficult
life changes and LaBeouf totally sells it.
Michael Douglas does some great things as Gekko, effectively selling
an older, wiser and more repentant version of his former self before
going right back to the bastard we all knew and loved twenty years ago.
However, the true “Gordon Gekko” role in this movie actually goes to
Josh Brolin. He plays Bretton James with the perfect amounts of warmth,
charisma and slime. He’s the guy that tries to take our protagonist as a
protege, ultimately getting spurned and screwed by him. Bretton
represents everything that Stone is railing against in this decade, just
as Gekko did in the ’80s.
Brolin does a great job with the role, though he’s hindered by the
fact that he gets less screen time than Gekko does. Moreover, Bretton’s
evil deeds are entirely told to us rather than shown, which makes him a
much less effective villain. This is one of many reasons why his
eventual takedown is so much less satisfying than watching Buddy Fox
school Gordon Gekko.
Frank Langella also makes a brief appearance as Jake’s mentor, Louis
Zabel. If Bretton represents self-destruction by corruption, then Louis
represents self-destruction by incompetence. He’s an old man who’s still
living in the past because the present just wearies him. He doesn’t
have the skill to run such a huge operation anymore and it’s implied
from his first line of dialogue that Louis’ mind is going. Jake’s
motivations throughout the movie hinge on Louis’ suicide, which makes
their relationship absolutely imperative. Fortunately, Louis makes a
solid impression with a good amount of dialogue and Langella’s amazing
performance. Also, LaBeouf works exceptionally well with Langella to
sell their bond early and often.
Susan Sarandon also gets a small role as Jake Moore’s mother. She’s
there to represent the real estate side of the economic meltdown. This
is a woman who owns more houses than she can afford and uses them to get
rich through real estate loopholes. Yet she still has to ask her son
for money and is outright horrified at the thought of getting an actual
job. Regrettably, she only gets about three short scenes in the movie,
effectively wasting the character’s satirical potential and Saradon’s
As for Carey Mulligan, I’m still not completely sold. She did a
decent enough job as Winnie Gekko, though she spends most of the movie
either crying or in frustration. I keep hearing that she’s this
wonderful actress, but I need to see a lot more range from her before
I’m convinced of that. Maybe when I see An Education, but that’s
another blog entry. For now, let’s just say she did a competent job with
what little she was given and move on.
This movie also has a few nods to the previous film that were small
yet appreciated. The most notable would have to be Buddy Fox himself,
obligingly poking his head in to catch up with Gekko and to fill us all
in on what’s happened to him since Wall Street. Funnily enough,
it looks like he’s turned into Charlie Sheen. Another, more minor
character makes a cameo and events from the previous movie are alluded
to. Oliver Stone himself has a walk-on role. I personally got a kick out
of it, though I imagine that someone coming in with no prior knowledge
of the original might have seen this as self-indulgent.
Finally, I’d like to talk about my absolute least favorite part of
this movie: The visuals. The camera work is okay, but the effects and
transitions are awful. This movie is loaded with split-screen shots that
are just ugly to look at. The phone conversations (the one Jake Moore
takes while driving from Long Island comes to mind) look terrible. The
CGI sequences that demonstrate a new fusion technology are grotesque and
clumsily used. Several stock shots look horrid and out of place.
Then we get the heavy-handed metaphors. At two separate times in this
film, there are shots of children playing with bubbles and we follow
one particular bubble as it floats to the sky. GET IT?! There’s also a
scene in which the stock market collapse is inexplicably superimposed
against a random shot of dominoes falling. I know that the original
movie didn’t exactly want for subtlety, but this is just absurd.
Perhaps the most damning of all is how this movie portrays the stock
market. This was easy in the original movie, with an LED stock ticker
rolling and cuts to a single stock ticker that we were keeping track of.
This movie, however, portrays the stock exchange as a CGI mess. It’s
all an incoherent jumble of glowing text lines and TV screens. Totally
The bottom line is that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is
demonstrably worse than its prequel. The acting is wonderful, but any
intelligent socio-economic commentary is watered down by family drama
and boneheaded visual metaphors. I recommend watching the original movie
instead, if only to get an idea of the potential that this movie