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REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Posted by Aaron Dries on October 7, 2010 at 1:31 PM

Promising Wall Street trader Jake (Shia LeBeouf) partners with the epitome of greed and corruption Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) - who has recently been released from his eight year stretch in prison for insider trading. The reason for their teaming is two-tiered revenge on Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Why? Well, the mischievous, speed hungry James incarcerated Gekko way back when via illegal means and unwillingly signed the financial and literal death warrant of Jake’s father figure, fellow trader and depressed mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Among the Wall Street daggers there is an emotional backbone in the storylines of Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gekko’s only surviving child and Jake’s Mother (played by a scene stealing Susan Surrandon). These interweaving plots are set against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crash.

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not a fantastic film. It’s good ... but not extraordinary by any means, nor is it as fine as its 1987 predecessor. And why? See, that’s what’s interesting. The elements are the same. There are enough storyline deviations to stop the film from being a simple rehash. The context and setting seem perfectly suited and integrated to the plot; the financial crash is a very suited metaphor to the personal lives of these brokers and broke men. All of the performances work and the cinematography is stunning.

So where does it go wrong?

Well, honestly, it doesn’t really. It’s just that Gekko, like Stone, has gotten older. And as a result, they’ve gotten softer. Is this necessarily a bad thing? No, of course not. We all get older. But when a film is based around a pre-existing central character who is reputed as being as cold and evil as it gets ... it’s naturally disappointing when those same descriptions cannot be applied to the same character the second time ‘round.

I understand why the tone is different. And I also understand that I have to be careful what I reveal in order to not give away any spoilers. But trust me when I say this, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, is softer. It’s not the cutting-edge expose the original was and it’s not as sharply written. The claws have been filed down.

This said, Stone directs with panache, utilizing a lot of digital effects and split screens. Here is a director who is not afraid to take a visual motif and splurge it over the screen with the tenacity and vibrancy of a director one third his age. There is gimmickry galore on display, but the tenacity of the tech is not reflected in the plot. And that’s a shame. The vile greed and cynicism of the first film is diluted by new themes: age, legacy and family integrity- all of which are fine and commendable traits for a screenplay to hold. But it does come at a cost. There is vague sentimentality to the piece that put my off. Why? Because if money never sleeps, then why is it fading? It’s not green any more. It’s grey. The bill has passed through too many hands.

Michael Douglas is good. But due to the script he is not able to utilize the character to the degree he did in the first film. Once the twists rise to the surface you realize that it is actually a far better performance than you first imagined. But even this is undermined by a final scene that sugar-coats the bitterness in a manner that feels contrived albeit warranted.

Greed is good, and yeah, I’m sorry. I wanted the greed. If it’s so good then why deny it to the audience?

Carey Mulligan shines, she’s so radiant on screen, with a presence that many actors of her generation don’t have. The film also features LeBeouf’s best acting to date. Generally speaking, he makes me want to pull out my hair. There is a smugness to his prior performances that I find distancing and unappealing (think Disturbia and Transformers; agreed his smugness suited Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull). This was the great revelation of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: LeBeouf can act- and well.  But the film is owned by Frank Langella, who is in it for too short a period of time and once he is gone the film suffers. His sequences carry a gravitas that is unmatched by anyone else in the cast, except for supporting actor, 95 year old Eli Wallach, a literal scene-stealer, just as he was in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. Hell, give the guy an Oscar.

There are some definite artistic flourishes and Stone, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and production designer Kristi Zea instil disturbing, renaissance-style elegance to the scenes in which the dinosaur stockbrokers sit in their high-backed chairs in semi darkness, their faces emerging into light and surrounded by gold picture frames. It’s stunning. It was in these far less flashy sequences that reminded me of Stone’s consummate ability as a director as opposed to his over-stylized moments. The score by the usually distinguished Craig Armstrong is ... well, undistinguished. As a result the film lacks some needed momentum and some suspense falls flat. You can’t help feeling that the stock market crash of 2008 is under felt and that this somehow has to do with the music choice. I loved Byrne and Eno’s original song compositions, but they did lend to the softening effect. All of the elements work individually, but when added up they counter-act the film in significant ways. On top of this is the inflated running time.

This isn’t a bad trip to the movies. It’s just disappointing. It’s good to see Stone flexing his arm again instead of beating his chest. Douglas is always good on screen. It’s gorgeous to look at and Stone again manages to convey the incomprehensible stock market to a wide audience via understandable visual motifs without pandering (and yet he underestimates the audience by including a clichéd “twist” flashback sequence that everyone understands and saw coming??).

This isn’t Oscar material, it’s fodder. But it’s well made fodder, albeit frustrating.

Rating: 3 / 5

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