Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Oliver Stone continues his late-career run of unwatchable duds with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to his era-defining original, released just two months after Black Monday in 1987. The story of the fall from grace of Michael Douglas’ greedy Gordon Gekko might have been intended as a cautionary tale but it came to be regarded as an advertisement for the culture of excess it condemned. Twenty years later, everything is different. The markets might be volatile, but turning the ongoing financial collapse into a compelling and satisfying cinematic story requires a surer hand than Stone can provide.

As the new film opens, Stone’s semi-demonic anti-hero Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is being released from prison after serving an eight year stretch for insider trading. Shortly afterwards, the irrepressible Gekko has regained his place at the trough, writing a bestselling book about the state of the markets that garners him plenty of press attention and a lucrative lecture tour. “You're the NINJA generation—no income, no job, no assets,” he tells a crowd of applauding acolytes, including young investment banker Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who just happens to be engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, left-wing blogger and activist Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jacob starts meeting with Gekko behind Winnie’s back, pumping the financial guru for career advice in exchange for facilitating a family reunion.

Not content with one villain, Stone introduces a new breed of reptile in Josh Brolin’s swaggering Bretton James. James came of age in a time when Gekko’s personal credo of “greed is good” became an aphorism, the first line on the first page of the Wall St trader’s handbook. James also serves to introduce rising talent Jacob to the good life, displaying his expensive art and lighting fat cigars and, later, challenging him to a macho race through upstate New York on expensive motorbikes.

Stone and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto bring a glitzy look to the melodrama, turning Manhattan into an arrangement of ornate structures and kaleidoscopic lights. Stone’s determination to decorate his moral sewer with glittering jewels reaches a climax in a bizarre scene at a glamorous reception where the camera glides through the crowd, settling on the enormous, sparkling earrings of the women in the crowd. Having arranged a seamless baker’s dozen of these elaborate jewels, the director hammers home his point about ill-gotten glories by closing on Mulligan’s demure pearl studs.

With characteristic modesty and subtlety, Stone is attempting to distil and define the recent financial collapse as a pantomime of good versus evil, pitting his cardboard cut-out characters against one another while, in the background, the world they inhabit collapses. In the underdeveloped script there are long passages when nothing seems to happen for long periods before a sudden tsunami of emotional crests all arrive at once. The death of Jacob’s mentor (a well-used Frank Langella) collides with his proposing marriage to the soporific Winnie. Later, the revelation that Winnie is pregnant, and Jacob’s realisation that he is soon to be a responsible family man, is crowded out by a quickfire series of Machiavellian manipulations from Gekko’s grinning villain.

Perhaps the time he spent with Fidel Castro for his documentary Comandante has eroded Stone’s faith in American capitalism. Wall Street II is not an investigation into the movement of modern money, or how lax banking regulation eventually breeds corruption, but rather a series of carelessly arranged vignettes on the themes of honour, loyalty and shame. The result is that while Stone’s second wander down Wall St never wants for incident, it is impossible to care about any of his characters and the story floats off into a sloppy, soppy conclusion.

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