Sympathy for the Devil: 'Wall Street' Returns
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Oliver Stone's incomparable gift for reducing complexity to cartoon once again goes public in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." And this glitzy, star-studded, simpleminded piece of B-movie real estate could actually rake in some shekels. Deep in not-quite-depression, what unemployed bloke wouldn't jump at the chance to hang out with Gordon Gekko, the iconic greedmeister who earned Michael Douglas Oscar gold in the original "Wall Street" (1987)?
And it's Douglas who makes Stone's sequel worth a watch -- he's a deliciously suave shark after a long summer season of takers, expendables, losers and piranhas. You might mistake Gordon Gekko for a broken man as he emerges from prison unshaven and disheveled, ironically jostled by a rapper making a beeline to his limo. But watch him Elmer Gantry a lecture hall of B.A. students, delivering such a jolly jeremiad, his congregation laughs through his apocalyptic message: "You're the Ninja generation -- no income, no jobs, no assets."
Close-ups of Douglas' ruined face -- far more decayed than his father's at the same age -- are a lesson in movie-star charisma. The once-handsome terrain is ravined, eroded, gone soft. And yet, when those laser-blue eyes crackle and pop, the power of personality gives flesh renewed form. The player's back in the game.
What juiced the original "Wall Street"'s ham-handed clichés and caricatures was the hot, amoral energy generated by Gekko, his venal "son" (Charlie Sheen, momentarily glimpsed in the sequel), and the Machiavellian game the two pursued with such avid glee. Twenty-three years later, in "Money Never Sleeps," greed's gone cold and the money game's become an arid exercise in fiscal unreality where cash just moves around in circles. The air, once cocaine-sharp, feels heavy despite the bubbles Stone -- twice -- has little kids blow, with heavy-handed stock market symbolism, into the ether. The big kills are no longer made in the trenches, hectic with hungry brokers, but around room-sized conference tables where graying bankers hover like giant carp.
The graybeards' heirs range from the brutish Bretton James (Josh Brolin, spot-on), backed by aged homunculus Jules Steinhardt (scene-stealing Eli Wallach), to the morally muddled wunderkind Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who -- like Sheen's Bud Fox -- waffles unattractively between Wall Street father figures: old-school investment banker Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) and con-artist Gordon Gekko.
Langella's as massive and beautiful as an old lion brought down by a hyena, when Brolin, Gekko-spawn, vengefully wipes out his life's work. His expressive, lived-in face -- which has convincingly channeled monsters from Dracula to Nixon -- puts you off LaBeouf's boyish physog and sophomoric performance. Beneath the slash of bold brows, the kid's eyes burn with ginned-up intensity, projecting something almost stronger than petulance. But the foxy chin and rosebud mouth undercut the illusion of masculine substance.
It's axiomatic that the perpetually adolescent Stone can't direct women worth a damn. Carey Mulligan was an Oscar nominee last year for "An Education," but as Winnie -- Jake's money-hating fiancée and Gekko's estranged daughter -- she's little more than a wind-up toy. Stone repeatedly holds her face in almost identical close-ups, encouraging her to pump out tears and distress. Reduced to an irritatingly self-righteous cipher, she never gets to act out of an authentic sense of self. She's just a whiny pawn in the big boys' game. Ditto for poor Susan Sarandon as Jake's real-estate agent mom, who pops up periodically to kvetch about her losses until her exasperated son tells her to return to her old, real job working in a hospital. Realtor bad; nurse good.
That's Stone's moral spectrum, spanning black to white ... but sometimes shading off to muddy. You gotta wonder how Goody Two-Shoes Winnie supports herself: Does her well-appointed life depend on her Wall Street boyfriend's ill-gotten gains? Jake's good-guy dream to fund green energy leads him to work for oil baron Bretton James, and to plot with Gekko to get hold of Winnie's Swiss millions. And Gekko, ever the master of the long con, gets to have his (birthday) cake and eat it, too. Stone's tendency to have it every which way, ethically speaking, is slippery enough, but it's the lie that slithers around in his flashy visual style, the worm in his cautionary apple.
Stone might have believed he was nailing the god of greed in "Wall Street," but the combination of his own ballsy style and Douglas' jazzed performance made greed's high priest a bloody star. You'd think this conspiracy-minded director would have learned by now to use a long spoon when supping with the devil. But in "Money Never Sleeps," his camera can't stop swooping lubriciously up, down and around skyscrapers, panning appreciatively over bevies of beautiful women adorned with glittering mega-earrings, projecting neon-red crawl lines of Dow readouts though the ebon streets of New York, gazing raptly out penthouse windows at the bejeweled city, the grand skyline of which becomes a graph of a plunging market.
So while newly redeemed Jake may drone on about a climate of insanity and the need for evolution -- all righteous stuff, especially given America's present fiscal crisis -- Stone, high on his own profligate style, seduces us into surrendering to that which he decries: the overpowering sensuality of wealth and power. He's kin to Gordon Gekko who, knowing the crash is near, wishes he had a hundred million or so to profit from it.
Kat Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and websites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.