Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Gordon Gekko’s release from prison, thoroughly documented in the trailer of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” takes place near the beginning of the film and provides the gag that also serves as the movie’s clearest link between past and present: the return of Gekko’s Motorola DynaTac 8000X, a bulky relic of a mobile phone long eclipsed as a state-of-the-art communication device. In an instant, director Oliver Stone conjures the brilliant visual flair that has been missing from his work for at least the last decade. And then the movie settles down, Gekko disappears for the rest of the exposition, and “Money Never Sleeps” lumbers along, not bullish but most definitely bearish – hibernation imminent.

The sequel’s enticing title suggests an exhilarating race through the high-stakes world of stocks and bonds, but Stone settles instead for a lukewarm summary of the recent global financial crisis. Set on the eve of the 2008 meltdown, “Money Never Sleeps” substitutes fictionalized emblems for the likes of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs, but the broad shorthand divides good from evil with a zeal that eliminates any moral shadings that might have stirred greater audience interest.

Admittedly, Shia LaBeouf’s idealistic hotshot Jacob Moore flirts with the dark side, even keeping secrets from fiancée Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter. There is no doubt, however, that LaBeouf’s green energy-embracing trader wears the white hat: he genuinely believes in the saltwater laser fusion outfit he champions to potential investors, he buys Winnie a shimmering boulder of an engagement ring, and he cries at the death of his principled mentor. Meanwhile, devilish billionaire villain Bretton James (Josh Brolin) crows about his rare study of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” and puppeteers closed-door, dimly lit meetings of the Federal Reserve Board when he is not busy sharpening the tines of his pitchfork.

Once Gekko slithers into the center of the action, “Money Never Sleeps” briefly perks up, with Michael Douglas in full possession of the dangerous twinkle that allows his iconic inside trader/traitor to straddle the line between antagonist and anti-hero. Unfortunately, Mulligan shares few scenes with Douglas, whose character is far more comfortable “recognizing a fellow fisherman” in his future son in law. The father-daughter conflict proves no more than a convenient plot mechanism, and Mulligan pays the price. Despite her greater share of screen time, Mulligan is nearly overshadowed by nonagenarian national treasure Eli Wallach, whose whistled cuckoo trills suggest that he might be the only actor in the enterprise playfully winking at the material.

Weirdly, Stone eventually asks us to believe that the soulless, reptilian, backstabber Gekko recognizes the fragility and transience of life, and “Money Never Sleeps” ends with a howler of a feel-good birthday party, criminally scored to “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” by the Talking Heads in a reprise of the original 1987 “Wall Street” closing credits. That song contains the line “Never for money/Always for love,” a sentiment Stone sidesteps, overlooks, or ignores for the duration of the movie that has preceded it.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/27/10.

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