The simple justification behind virtually every sequel ever made is, to put it bluntly, the third word in the title of Oliver Stone’s belated follow-up to his 1987 corporate thriller Wall Street.
With its slashing appraisal of cut throat American capitalism told within the familiar constructs of a story about making big dosh and the moral conflicts therein, the movie struck a raw nerve with audiences and went on to become an unexpected classic.
Stone created the legend of Gordon Gekko, the slick and ruthless high rollin’ stock market investor who, memorably inhabited by Michael Douglas, coined some infamous turns of phrase – notably “lunch is for wimps” and “greed is good.”
The mantra at the heart of the movie swung the other way – that greed is bad, mmkay – but lovers of Hollywood flicks who might instinctively champion such a message may wish to stop and think about what that means. The studio lots and star spangled streets beneath the Hollywood Hills are motivated by nothing if not greed, the lust for fortune and fame, with creativity coming in a distant third.
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With sequels estimated to earn at least 25% of the original release’s box office intake – but likely to be considerably more – milking more moolah out of a successful movie is as close to a shoo-in investment as you get.
But greed isn’t what motivated Stone to make Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Given the former raging lefty’s burning disdain for big business, it is especially commendable that this film is a rare example of a sequel that was made for the right reasons. Not for cash, but because the filmmaker felt the passage of time had pried open the need for a new chapter to add to his story.
For years Stone’s official line was that he wasn’t interested in making a Wall Street sequel. A real life event that played into the themes of the original movie changed his mind: a tiny, barely significant occurrence (you may have heard of it) known as the Global Financial Crisis.
So Stone returned to the director’s chair with meritorious motives: an artist re-entering the universe they created after a historical event provided inspiration to add another stroke to the canvas. Not a bad justification by anybody’s standards.
Sadly, laudable motivations does not a good sequel maketh. The staggering thing about Wall Street 2 is isn’t its lack of an engaging story but its soporific tone, an unfortunate and unintentional nod to the titular word “sleeps.”
Time appears to have mellowed rather than intensified Gekko’s world, the high stakes financial landscape to which he returns. Real life paints a very different picture. The sluggish and tension-bereft pace of Money Never Sleeps is particularly odd given Stone’s flamboyant style and tendency to over-ween his material (i.e. World Trade Centre, Alexander, Natural Born Killers).
Despairingly, the story structure is a cookie cutter replica of the first movie with a couple of sub-plot alterations that are neither here nor there. We follow feisty young upstart Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) who, just like Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, endeavors to make big bucks but maintain a modicum of moral decency. As he is to discover, this ain’t so easy in the greasy high stakes world of “buy buy buy sell sell sell.”
Gekko is released from prison in the first reel, with no fanfare and nobody waiting to pick him up. He spends the rest of the movie hovering like a specter around the story’s peripheries, periodically creasing his brow and fattening a vein to come in and steal the show.
The twist this time around is a “this time it’s personal” riff that positions Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) as Jake’s fiancé. Oh, the tangled web we weave.
Winnie wants nothing to do with her father and warns Jake to avoid Gekko. However, he is predictably seduced (and who isn’t?) by the former jailbird’s charisma and business nous.
Gekko is now a published author and, on the publicity trail, he and Jake cross paths. A relationship grows between them as Jake climbs the corporate ladder under the tyranny of his new bigwig burn-the-small-guys employer Bretton James (Josh Brolin).
Of the movie’s most blaring shortcomings is its failure to capture the gravity of the Global Financial Crisis. It conveys one of those words convincingly – the middle one, which it achieves largely through fiscal-sounding mumbo jumbo dialogue such as “your valuations are no longer believable.” That’s a line a snarky studio exec might like to remind Oliver Stone of the next time he pitches his newest creative vision.
Gekko is very much a supporting character, handled like Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs movies in the sense that Stone is careful not to show us too much of him and to keep the audience always hungry to see more. However, this is not his show. Lunch may still be for wimps but this is somebody else’s meal.
Gekko’s words sometimes connect, such as a speech in which he discusses the class of university students in font of him as being part of a “ninja generation” – no savings, few prospects, largely invisible. He gets all the best lines delivered on a platter, like “it’s not about the money – it’s about the game” and, more impressively, “money’s a bitch that never sleeps.”
Douglas is just as good in his re-jigged role as he was in the original – slick, stylish, lens hogging – and none of the film’s vices can be attributed to him. LaBeouf is a less engaging performer cast in a much less engaging role, and his middle of the road shtick is becoming more irksome as it becomes more homogenised. That’s what three Michael Bay projects and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will do to you.
The performance of the film goes hands down to Frank Langella, who conveys the sort of gravity most actors only dream of. Langella has proven he can handle demanding roles invoking mimicry and historical reinvention with aplomb (as Nixon in Frost/Nixon) just as he can take a cartoonish role in a dodgy movie (i.e. The Box) and come out looking like a slick thespian. Sadly, his high impact part in Money Never Sleeps is very small, and, as the film’s best asset, his presence is squandered.
So too is the very premise on which this film is based. The biggest problem with Money Never Sleeps is that it plays more like a remake than a sequel, with the most iconic character shoehorned into it. There is a shoddy last minute attempt to reward the goodies and inflict comeuppance onto the baddies, and a clumsy bookend voice over track that mars both the beginning and end.
After all these years, lunch is still for wimps and Gordon Gekko is still on top of his game. At the fuzzy end of a batch of bung films (Alexander, World Trade Center, W.), and looking as if this unfortunate trend will only continue, the same cannot be said about Oliver Stone.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ Australian theatrical release date: September 23, 2010