America’s recent economic meltdown is a topic teeming with high drama and hard lessons. Sign on the right director and screenwriters, and the result should be something scintillating.
On paper, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” appears to be a perfect union between filmmaker and material. It was Oliver Stone, after all, who conceived the original film, a profound and significant object lesson about the rise and fall of dirty insider trader Gordon Gekko, an icon whose name is now synonymous with ‘80s greed.
But that bristlingly smart 1987 film merely serves to magnify the disappointments of Stone’s wobbly sequel, set roughly 20 years later.
Blame rests not on the cast, which is terrific, but on Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, whose stock as convincing storytellers takes a tumble here.
“Money Never Sleeps” shows tremendous promise out of the gate, with the slick Gekko – played with a seemingly flaccid sense of resignation by Michael Douglas, reprising his Oscar-winning role – re-emerging from prison to a strange new world of financial nefariousness.
The film stays on course when it peers into the dark-wooded boardrooms, posh social parties and shaky financial institutions – all of which ring with authoritative realism.
But Stone and the script shortchange the characters, forcing them to do things that seem phony and having them recite lines that sound stilted and overly didactic.
We see this when hotshot trader Jake (a solid Shia LaBeouf) persuades principled girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gekko’s daughter, into a reconciliation dinner with her estranged daddy dearest.
Jake is seeking to avenge the downfall of his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, who gives the strongest and most movingly tragic performance). The target of his rage is morally bankrupt investment banker Churchill Schwartz (Josh Brolin, going full-bore with the macho posturing), a conniving piece of work who admires the pluck of ambitious Jake and offers him a job.
All these performances consistently outshine the story, although halfway through Mulligan (“An Education”) is reduced to playing a sprung leak at the tear duct factory.
To be fair, it is an audacious task to explain what drove the world economy so suddenly to the edge of near financial collapse, and this sequel demonstrates just how much more complex – and nasty – the financial world has become since the first “Wall Street” screened.
And while Stone’s story does shine some light on the players in that world and how they and the varying financial factors intersect, it’s never enough to fully illuminate the issues.
But it’s Stone-as-filmmaker who most disappoints. He makes bad directorial choices, opting for split screens that rudely take us out of the moment of the film and later superimposing the image of a dead character to make a heavy-handed point.
All of that cinematic bluster is unnecessary. If he had cut the bull and focused on the bullishness, he might have had a sequel worthy of its original.
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