Saturday, September 25, 2010

Crime and Punishment: WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS

Oliver Stone’s 1987 financial thriller Wall Street worked because it pinpointed the human tragedies imbedded in the fluctuations of the stock market by placing a young stockbroker (Charlie Sheen) between his union-man father (Martin Sheen) and a slimy potential father-figure mentor, the financial tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). The movie thrills with its juicy drama, electric script, and the almost tactile sense of the stock market as one giant game played only by the rich and the power-hungry.

How was Stone to know that Douglas’s Gekko, the film’s villain, would become a hero of sorts to a generation of Wall Street employees? Gekko’s central, memorable speech, where he explains the virtues of unchecked greed (it’s, “for lack of a better term, good”) is chilling in context. Once ripped from the film, the speech entered the business lexicon. Rather than serving as a cautionary tale (Gekko eventually gets in big trouble for his shady dealings), good greed became the name of the game. The film is dated now and not just because of the fashions, the music, and the technology. In 2010, the financial crimes and outrages of 1987 seem quaint.

The time is exactly right for a follow up. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is set in 2008 in the moments leading up to the financial meltdown and the subsequent bank bailouts. Though following fictional characters, the basic facts of the crisis are left unchanged. There weren’t competing banks run by Frank Langella and Eli Wallach, but it’s not hard to assume that the nameless bank owners who sit in ominous boardrooms and backrooms stand in for those who really were partly responsible for running our economy into the ground. The milieu in which the film takes place rings more or less true.

It is the build up to this crisis that Gordon Gekko finds himself witnessing after being released from prison seven years before the film’s action begins. In the interim, he’s written a book and become a hit on the lecture circuit. There’s the sense that he’s merely circling his old stomping grounds, waiting for the right moment to get back in the game. He’s been burned before, but he’s learned from his mistakes. He may be older, but he’s no less ruthless. He may appear slightly softer, mildly gentler, but this is a man who still has deep reservoirs of danger and anger with which he can sting his enemies.

And yet, this is a film that will never really live up to the promise of its premise. Scenes involving slimy bankers, especially the suave sleaze of Josh Brolin’s billionaire investor, are often captivating in their rush of jargon and amoral greed. This is where we need to see Gekko. He needs to be going toe-to-toe with the people who make his villainy outdated. Instead, he’s working by proxy through Shia LaBeouf, a young ambitious suit who also happens to be the fiancé of Gekko’s estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan).

LaBeouf and Mulligan are perfectly fine in ill-conceived roles. Their respective struggles with the Wall Street game – LaBeouf wants to get in it while Mulligan is still dealing with the destruction it did to her family – are of some mild interest. But the relationship between LaBeouf and Douglas, though it has its moments, isn’t as deeply felt as the similar relationship between Sheen and Douglas in the first film. And Mulligan, despite all her considerable talent, is given little more to do than tear up from time to time and constantly refuse to have anything to do with her father. At best, the interfamily relationships, including Susan Sarandon in little more than a cameo as LaBeouf’s mother, are perfectly watchable and appealing. At worst, they distract from the real fun.

And there is certainly real fun to be had with Money Never Sleeps. Fueled by a score that includes great songs from Brian Eno and David Byrne, it’s effortlessly enjoyable when it follows its characters manipulating stock prices, schmoozing at galas, and engaging in tense discussions of economic and business policies. The ease with which the stock market can be influenced and the simplicity with which billions can be lost is real-world scariness channeled into rapid-fire thriller-speak. The film watches the fluctuations in stock prices, keeping the audience informed how the shapes of the graphs are being used for revenge, for greed, for the sheer dark pleasures of playing the game.

The script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff is not at all as sparkling as the writing to be found in the first film with its great monologues and memorable exchanges penned by Oliver Stone and Stanley Weiser. In fact, the sequel includes a lengthy speech that is clearly intended to be the new “greed is good” moment. Douglas delivers it well, but it goes on for far too long with no stakes involved and not one memorable line. Stone’s filmmaking picks up some of the script’s slack with its mostly solid craftsmanship. This is a fast, messy 133 minutes, despite occasional symbolic hiccups. It’s filled with genuine interest in the fascinating, infuriating machinations of Wall Street.

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