'Wall Street' sequel turns into a meltdown

Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"

Edward R. Pressman Film

2 hours, 13 minutes

There was a time when a sequel for a movie like Oliver Stone's acclaimed 1987 "Wall Street," would have seemed silly. You don't make sequels to that kind of movie. There's no saga -- it's a self-contained story, an indictment of the excesses of the money men of the 1980s, and it ends with the star, Michael Douglas, being hauled off to prison. That pretty well wraps it up.

That is, until the crash of 2008, when the housing market and the speculative gamblers in the big investment firms very nearly dragged the global economy back to the dark ages. Suddenly, a return to the discussion of Gordon Gekko and his "greed is good" philosophy seemed appropriate. Hence, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

It's a good idea -- too bad it's such a mess.

Rewind to 2001, and Gordon Gekko, nailed for insider trading and a host of other crimes, is released from prison after nine years inside. Subjected to a particularly harsh sentence for a white-collar crime, Gekko harbors a bitterness he masks with humble contrition. "Prison was the best thing for me," he tells people, barely hiding his shark's grin.

Yikes. Michael Douglas won the Oscar for the original film, and he's barely lost a step diving back into the role. The film jumps forward seven years to 2008 and the impending financial chaos. This time around there's a new pretty boy to push around, the Charlie Sheen role passing to Shia LeBeouf, playing Jake Moore, a hotshot young trader who happens to be engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter. When Moore's firm, a composite of doomed giants Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, crashes at the beginning of the economic crisis, its CEO and Jake's mentor commits suicide. Moore, convinced that rival money mogul Bretton James participated in the demise, decides to get revenge. His plan involves misinformation, back-stabbing, and a manipulation of the market downfall. Who better to aid him in his quest but Gordon Gekko, recently returned to the spotlight with a best-selling book that predicted the financial meltdown.

Gekko, of course, has ulterior motives -- he wants to rekindle his relationship with his only remaining family member, his daughter Winnie. But is that all he wants? With a guy like Gekko, there's always a bottom line, and if Jake's not careful, he may find himself crashing headlong into it.

As I said, the idea is not a bad one. If there were ever an appropriate time to revisit one of the great dramatic villains of the 80s, this latest financial climate would be it. The problem is that Oliver Stone, a skilled if often chaotic director, refuses to simply let his story stand on its own. Every few scenes the flow is interrupted by some bit of directorial flash -- speeded camera, flying graphics, charts and illustrations. It's the kind of treatment usually reserved for indie comedy-dramas, or whimsical documentaries, not hard-hitting, big-budget dramas.

As well, the writing is not particularly good. The story concept isn't bad, but the specifics get muddy very quickly. It doesn't help that the dialogue is clunky and filled with way too much exposition. I understand that there are 20 years of intervening space between the two films, but all the explanations don't make for gripping interactions. It's a weird combination. The story's too complicated but the dialogue's too simple. You want to know what's going on, you just can't stand to hear the characters talk about it. Maybe that's what all the crazy graphics were about.

One part of the film I couldn't fault was the acting. Despite the substandard script, the production is chock-full of talented performers who do their best with what they have. LeBeouf is, in my opinion, overrated as an actor, but he holds his own with powerhouses like Michael Douglas, Frank Langella, and Josh Brolin, excellent as Bretton James, the embodiment of financial hubris.

Also very good is Carrey Mulligan as Winnie Gekko. She portrays strength and vulnerability in a completely believable manner and has a promising career ahead of her.

Though the performances were, on the whole, top-notch, I was disappointed in two. One, a cameo appearance by Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox seemed to negate whatever positive lessons the character had learned in the first film, and did little more than highlight how doughy and tired the actor now looks. It's hard to believe that this guy was the star of such pedigreed fare as "Wall Street" and "Platoon." Now he can barely hold on to his sitcom job. I guess that's what hard living will do to you.

The other sad inclusion was veteran Eli Wallach, who seemed barely aware that he was even in a movie. I don't mean to impugn Wallach, who was a great actor, and played two of my favorite villains of all time in both "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." But the man is 95 years old and is placed on screen almost as an ornament. Playing a powerful patriarch of a financial firm, Wallach is in several key scenes, but does very little. The few lines he does have are either pointless and feel tacked on, or make the old man seem crazy. At several points he randomly makes bird noises, to the obvious discomfort of the actors around him. It's hard to tell whether the unease was real or acting.

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" had potential to be a powerful film, an appropriate criticism of the financial industry starring one of it's most celebrated on-screen baddies. But Stone, perhaps feeling the pressure to knock this one out of the park, botches the execution. What's left are some noteworthy performances and a whole bunch of good ideas with nothing to connect to. Stone is making a statement about the destruction of the dollar, but in the end it's his own currency that's devalued.

Grade: C

"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is rated PG-13 for language and adult themes.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.



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