No Pay Dirt Here
Wall Street (1987) crackled with life because of its strong, singularly focused message, one that resonated with an entire generation of moviegoers experiencing the excesses of the eighties. “Greed is good” not only became the mantra of that film’s villain, Gordon Gekko, it also spawned an army of little Wall Street moneymen sporting slicked back hair, wide, colorful suspenders and a penchant for gluttony of the highest order. It was a message that seemed perfect coming from Oliver Stone, a filmmaker known for his caustic stances on abrasive subjects. And though Stone was actually telling us greed isn’t good, we saw through Gekko that it IS very seductive and appealing. Gordon Gekko made it fun to root for the bad guy.
Fast-forward to Stone’s highly-anticipated follow-up subtitled Money Never Sleeps, where Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko appears reduced to a warm and fuzzy shell of his former self, and the entire film comes across as an unfocused mess with as much ruthlessness and greed as any Sunday morning church service. Gone are the villains, the greed and Stone’s acerbic bite. Remaining are the bad memories and bitter tastes left over from 2008’s market crash that numbed us to the impact of the word “billions.”
The film opens as Gekko, having served time for racketeering, money laundering, and securities fraud, steps outside the gates of a federal correctional facility. No one meets him, and he’s clearly a changed man…his swagger gone. While in prison he wrote a book on, you guessed it, greed. He’s currently travelling the lecture and TV talk show circuit preaching the forthcoming financial doom. Meanwhile, his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) is engaged to Jake (Shia Lebeouf), a twenty-something millionaire stockbroker with a conscience. Does such an animal really exist? The old Stone would have made us believe “no.”
Anyway, Jake hopes Gekko can help him get revenge on ruthless corporate raider Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a man Jake blames for the false rumors that helped bring down the young broker’s firm. Winnie warns Jake that her father may not be as friendly as he seems, but Jake moves forward with the plan and cozies up to Gekko to set the strategy of revenge against James’s financial empire in motion.
From here the plot meanders all over the road, drifting in and out of comprehension, always muddied by the brutal complexity of the financial meltdown’s inner machinations. We’re constantly bombarded by the same stuff we didn’t understand a couple of years ago -- things like stock equity swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and mortgage-backed securities. Unfortunately, the filmmakers do nothing to put any of it in an interesting context. All we know is that a bunch of greedy guys do bad things with other people’s money. Been there, done that.
To be fair to Stone, he was brought in late to the project after the bloated script had already been written, so he has a lot of stuff to cram into the story. And that’s the problem. It feels crammed. Screenwriter Allan Loeb is a registered stockbroker, so it’s easy to understand why he couldn’t resist losing himself in the complexity of the subject matter, but the film’s lack of focus -- verging on multiple personality disorder -- is inexcusable. It teeters between revenge tale, family drama, coming-of-age story, morality tale, pointed satire and nostalgic remake. Any (or even all) of these could have made an interesting movie. But instead, the final product becomes a bloated beast, flailing in all directions for two plus hours, hoping to hit pay dirt. It never does.
A standout performance or two could have masked some of the film’s egregious shortcomings. But no one seems interested enough to take the ball and run with it. Douglas comes closest with his schizoid Gekko, but he never finds the same fire that made his ’87 alter ego so much fun to watch. LaBeouf also fails to take advantage, as does Brolin who chews so much scenery he shouldn’t need to eat until his next film is in the can. A brief cameo by Charlie Sheen tickles briefly.
Can’t believe I’m saying this about an Oliver Stone film, but Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is an anaemic little bore with no balls, no bite and nothing to get our dander up. The unpunished guilt from the real-life financial meltdown pissed us off. Here it just bores us.
(Released by and rated “PG-13” for brief strong language and thematic elements.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.