Though not as disastrous as they’ve been for the US economy, the past few years haven’t been all that kind to Oliver Stone, whose recent films have hardly been boxoffice smashes (or particularly distinguished from a cinematic standpoint). But “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” may reverse the trend. Great, thoughtful drama it’s not, but it’s sleek, fast and amusing enough to serve as the sort of high-gloss, dumb-fun melodrama that holds your interest without overtaxing your brain.
And it brings back Michael Douglas to career-defining role as Gordon Gekko, the high-flying investment wizard and “greed is good” guru of Stone’s 1987 movie. Given recent news about his health problems, it may make one a little queasy hearing him refer to speculation as a cancer on the American economic system, but otherwise he seems to be having a jolly time thrusting his chin into the character a second time. Despite the fact that Gekko is far from the lead figure here, he—or rather Douglas—dominates the picture as easily as the actor did a largely one-man show like “A Solitary Man.”
As the movie opens, Gekko’s just been released from an eight-year stint in federal prison on stock manipulation charges, a man forgotten or loathed, depending on whom you ask. He recovers by writing a book and giving lectures denouncing the speculative schemes that have infected the financial system since his time on top, performances given punch by screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, who provide him with a virtual catalogue of witty one-liners that he employs both in his public pronouncements and his private conversations.
Meanwhile, before the speculative bubble bursts late in 2008, young Wall Street hot shot Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) has caught the eye of Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), the old-school head of the investment firm where he works, whom Jake considers a mentor. Jake’s a nimble trader, but also an idealist, hoping to secure big funds for a project to produce clean, cheap energy via an experimental fusion process being developed by a nerdy California researcher (Austin Pendleton). But the firm is in serious trouble, its shares tumbling amid rumors of unmanageable debt, and under pressure from a cabal of “wise men” (including government reps), Zabel is forced to sell it at bargain-basement prices to his young-shark rival, Bretton James (Josh Brolin). That leads to Zabel’s suicide, and to Jake’s manipulation to hurt James in the market in revenge. But the effect of Jake’s shenanigans is just a pin-prick to James, who admires the kid’s spunk and offers him a job.
The wrinkle in all this is that James was fingered to Jake by Gekko, who, we learn, was betrayed by James years earlier, and who just happens to be the father of Jake’s live-in girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a highly principled gal who’s setting up a news website that will unmask wrongdoing of every sort. Winnie despises her father, whose misdeeds, in her view, destroyed the family (leading to the deaths of her mother and brother), and wants nothing to do with him. And Gekko’s price for his help to Jake is that the young man smooth a reconciliation with his daughter. So domestic concerns jostle for running-time with the Wall Street machinations.
And frankly they prove a good deal less fun. The real amusement in “Money Never Sleeps” lies in the chessboard-like moves made by Gordon and Jake, against one another and of course James. In comparison to that side of the movie, the family stuff is pretty bathetic, though it is connected to a big fiscal twist that affects the denouement, and though Mulligan brings a nice vulnerability to her character (and is, in fact, more impressive here than in the current “Never Let Me Go”).
As for LaBeouf and Brolin, they’re perfectly fine, but come off pretty pale beside the strutting Douglas, supplied with his array of pithy put-downs, and a couple of other veterans who shine in smaller parts—Langella, whose morose befuddlement is a striking portrait of a man who’s outlived his skills, and Eli Wallach, playing a wily old Wall Street sage with impish glee. Less successful is Susan Sarandon as Jake’s mother, whose real estate business is going down the tubes in the bursting of the housing bubble. Stone’s own cameo appearance adds little one way or another; after all, he’s no Hitchcock.
“Money Never Sleeps” boasts slick production values down the line, with Rodrigo Prieto’s handsome cinematography making good use of the many locations, especially those in the Big Apple. And the background score amusingly includes old songs, including some by David Byrne. Talk about nostalgia.
The result is a picture in which Stone wisely refrains from hectoring his audience about Wall Street crimes and uses the financial meltdown simply as a background for “Dallas” like skullduggery and soap opera shenanigans. Happily this is a spiffy piece of pulp, not a lecture. Enjoy the empty extravagance.