Full disclosure: I’ve never been an Oliver Stone adherent, not even in those embryonic days of cinematic discovery, when our prospect is limited and our idea of “good film” comprises mainstream projects that seem to (but don’t really) flirt with the fringe. This is Stone all over: a flatulent bomber who drops controversial topics from screaming aircraft and seems inordinately proud when they land like duds. I’ll cop to a fondness for Talk Radio, which has more to do with my ambivalence towards the kinetically churlish Bogosian than anything (pitch-perfect casting will take a movie further than it can go under its own steam), but by and large Stone’s projects have as much meaning as a toddler’s grocery-store meltdown — while insisting they have much, much more. Perhaps some viewers spot insight in Stone’s anxious bluster, but all I see is a rather inarticulate man reduced to communicating his frustrated entitlement with clenched fists, all in the guise of Telling the TruthTM. Stone’s signature shot — a swooping, revolving Steadicam maneuver that he uses in most of his confrontational scenes — is a trick that lends a false sense of mastery, I think, to his projects. The shot itself is appropriate and even thrilling, slick and attractive, but it’s all the director really has. It’s a visual whoop-and-holler that creates a pounding in our aesthetic ear that substitutes for significance.
The original Wall Street, an audience favorite in 1987, struggles to maintain its dignity in 2010. The wire-taut bustle of the trading floor still galvanizes the narrative, and Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko continues to earn his iconic status, but Darryl Hannah’s acting and interior decorating are equally wretched, John C. McGinley’s goofball shtick is as dated as it is aggravating, and the less said about Charlie Sheen, the better. In short, the first Wall Street is an uneven film — which is the very yardstick Stone used to erect its sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. If the subject matter of both movies — individual greed and institutional castle-building — deserves to be anatomized in a public theater, it also deserves a better surgeon. The one conducting this autopsy manages to surround himself with some dexterous hands: Douglas, of course, who will be Gekko first and Kirk’s son second on his epitaph, and Josh Brolin as a viperous rival. But he also peoples his world with half-talents like Carey “One Squint” Mulligan, quarter-talents like the indistinct Shia LaBeouf, and no-talents like Sheen (whose brief walk-on as an older Bud Fox corrupts the rest of the performances with its incompetence). Old-guard monoliths like Frank Langella and Eli Wallach try to prop up the proceedings as old-guard financiers—which they do, to a point, and we welcome their scenes — but there’s only so much they can make of a lukewarm script written by pens who’ve yet to impress us. And because like is attracted to like, Stone recruits cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, known for his ability to bring even more bluster to Arriaga’s hyperbolic scripts; any chance for nuance was lost with that hire.
Money Never Sleeps opens in 2001, when Gordon Gekko is released from white-collar prison after time served for insider trading. Fast-forward seven years, and Gekko’s book, Is Greed Good?, begins to hit the circuit, to the chagrin of his estranged daughter Winnie (Mulligan), a political blogger with a conscience. Gekko is a blight to his daughter but a tantalizing enigma to his daughter’s trader boyfriend Jake (LaBeouf), who introduces himself to his future father-in-law on the sly and winds up in the middle of a power struggle between Gekko and Winnie — one that parallels the corporate battle going on between Jake’s mentor (Langella), the co-founder of an investment bank, and a magnate (Brolin) who makes Gekko look relatively benign. The structure of these twin (and eventually intertwined) contests is Stone’s one attempt at meaning even if it’s only a half-telling metaphor; Jake’s plotting to reunite Winnie and her father (which involves a hundred-million-dollar nest egg) mirrors, to an extent, the secretive schemes that traders undertake with clients’ cash “for their own good” and without their knowledge. It’s by no means a revelatory thesis, but at least it’s something we can bite into. Other attempts at “purpose” are made by linking Gekko’s reptilian surname (and by extension all financiers) to the Cambrian explosion; embodying the mortgage crisis in Susan Sarandon’s sub-prime mortgage junkie; or referencing the 17th-century tulip bubble.
The haphazard world of speculation is inherently dramatic, yet Stone manages to iron it flat. The first Wall Street enjoyed a certain momentum generated by the excitement of the oscillating DOW—characters returned again and again to the white-hot chaos of the brokerage or trading floor, backdrops full of motion, panic and repartee. ‘Money Never Sleeps’ harnesses some of that image and sound, and when we’re in the thick of it — Stone has a talent for recreating Wall Street’s animation — we feel the adrenaline of trade as well as its uneasy ethic. But after a while, the sequel lets that momentum fade. We’re removed from the core of things, and the dynastic skirmish onscreen could be taking place anywhere, in nearly any industry (though Stone makes much of the fact that the 2008 crash is imminent). The staccato yelps of anxious brokers is replaced with split screens, animated diagrams, and stock-market digi-crawls — weak substitutes that are all contrivance, in Stone’s hands, and no verve. A couple of scenes stand out: Gekko’s book-launch lecture, while not electric, has a certain ring to it, and Jake’s visits to Gekko’s penthouse are just intriguing enough. But these better scenes alternate with shockingly bad ones (Jake and Gekko arguing on a subway; the Bud Fox update; the morbid Mulligan whinges), and all of them are wrapped in a vanilla band of naught.
Stone could have done interesting things with his riffing on Muscular Christianity; a sort of muscular corporate activism is presented to us as something that needs to be undermined, but there’s too much indulgence evident in the computer-screen/wood-paneling set design, the cabalistic financial meetings, the laughable motorcycle race between rivals, and the camera-fondles of women’s heels and asses. (There are also some interesting questions raised when we notice how much Brolin physically resembles Stone himself, who pops up in a bland cameo or two.) But the director doesn’t seem to be aware of the potential of his own topic or set-up, or have the chops to fully render it. ‘Money Never Sleeps’ (a phrase that can’t be taken seriously) is another muffled Oliver Stone explosion. It yells and postures and tells us it has a moral, but it never brings its critique to credible life. It insists it’s on The Side of GoodTM but Stone confuses extravagance with altruism, and tries to sell old-fashioned machismo as new moral even as he disputes the old-fashioned machismo of other men. Great directors, when unable to step outside of themselves, do great things with ego and personal perspective. Stone isn’t a great director. –Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on In Review Online, on October 5, 2010.)