The sequel to a well-regarded eighties’ hit has its highs, but not enough to conquer the tedium of its soapy family drama.
SEP 26, 2010 – MONEY, TO SOME, IS A COMPLEX COMMODITY that needs to be comprehended through gimlet-eyed explorations of stock market indices, the financial papers and business channels on television. To others, it’s simply something that resides in one’s wallet because the man at the supermarket won’t let you take things home otherwise. I happen to be a card-carrying member of the latter category, and the minor miracle of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was that it ended up seducing someone like me. Stone’s trick was that he wrapped his fiscal fascinations in a juicy (and timeless) Faustian melodrama, with Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko – the snake with the aptly reptilian name – as Mephistopheles. Would we sell our souls if someone dangled before us the prospect of riches beyond our wildest imaginations? You don’t need to know a bull from a bear to relate to this premise – you just need to know your bank balance. That, more than anything, is the reason Wall Street has endured over other Zeitgeisty hits from its year, like Fatal Attraction or The Secret of My Success, the more lightweight but more successful business-themed release of 1987.
One of the links to the ethos of the eighties in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Stone’s lumbering sequel, is the brick-sized cellular phone retrieved by Gekko upon release from prison at the film’s beginning. (The other link is a soundtrack strewn with songs by Brian Eno and David Byrne, the latter from Talking Heads an appropriate presence in a film built largely around talking heads.) Otherwise, Stone’s thesis is that the world, two decades thence, has moved on, and greed is not only good but a given. In the early-morning shots of New York, the glimmering skyscrapers appear to made of platinum and gold, and elsewhere, during a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser, the camera spends a good amount of time gawking at glittering diamonds in the earrings of those who’ve bought into and benefited from Gekko’s mantra. The rapaciousness is so rampant that companies bear names like Hydra Offshore and The Locust Fund, the predatory tycoon Bretton James (Josh Brolin) is dismissed as a “pious piranha,” and the painting that adorns his wall is Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son. Cannibalism, clearly, is the institutionalised survival strategy. No wonder, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), an old-timer with a penchant for quaint bow ties and quainter business ethics, sighs, “It’s no fun anymore.”
It isn’t supposed to be. The inextricable nexus between money and misdemeanor has been highlighted in everything from the Bible (money is the root of all evil) to Balzac (behind every great fortune lies a great crime), and Stone shoots the scenes of Wall Street power-mongering as if they were, instead, the meetings of the Five Families from The Godfather. Men sit around an enormous conference table and discuss life and death in silken tones, dispatching the enemy not by revolvers but rumours that spiral into career-obliterating tornadoes. The entertainment in these early portions comes from the livewire patter, the swirling riffs of jargon that accrue into a heady form of spoken jazz, even if you have no means of parsing lines along the lines of “Your firm knows sub-primes are crap.” And it’s a pleasure to listen to Douglas, whose drawl seems to rise from the pit of his stomach, accompanied by its own little echo by the time the words leave his lips. Stone knows the value of a good actor who’s a great orator, and he loses no opportunity feeding Douglas dialogue that would look ridiculous coming from anyone else. (Sample: “Money’s the bitch that never sleeps.”)
The hamminess of these bons mots is matched by the hamminess of the filmmaking. At no point along his long and varied career could Stone be accused of subtlety, but Money Never Sleeps is overcooked even by his ripe standards – and it’s not easy, at times, to say if some of the showier effects are just plain bad decisions or intentionally vulgar. What are we to make of the constant invocation of bubbles, with regard to a bubble economy? A voiceover, early on, speaks of the Cambrian explosion being the “mother of all bubbles,” a TV reporter is dismissed as a bubblehead, a character pops up in what appears to be a thought bubble, and children at a park scamper about blowing soap bubbles. It’s hard to imagine directorial touches more ungainly, but we are also treated to a visual of frothing waves when someone speaks of converting seawater into energy, and a shot of collapsing dominoes accompanies the news of a Wall Street collapse.
The bigger problem, however, is the story surrounding all this business, the story supposed to make this sequel palatable to those who viewed the first film as a morality tale first, a timely economic screed only later. This time around, the sugar-coating comes in the form of soapy family drama. When Gekko leaves prison, he sees fellow prisoners being welcomed back into the outstretched arms of wives and smiling children. No one comes to claim Gekko, and the reason, we learn, is that his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan, wresting something worthwhile from a thankless role) blames him for the death of her brother. And her boyfriend Jacob (Shia LaBeouf, taking a worthwhile role and rendering it thankless), an admirer of Gekko, takes it upon himself to reunite father and daughter. There’s a terrific twist in the latter portions, the kind that makes you slap your forehead and reevaluate everything that came before, and the film should have ended right there – but Stone won’t leave well enough alone. He abrades Gekko’s edge with a ridiculously sentimental coda that reduces the character to a joke. And wait till you see the celebration over the closing credits. Many more touchy-feely bubbles are blown, but it’s Stone, this time, who’s gotten greedy, striving to bestow redemption on an antihero who asked for none. Someone should tell Stone that greed isn’t always good.