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Sep242010

WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS is more reaction than action, but a good story nonetheless

Rating:  (Good)

It serves as a sign of the times that the villain in Wall Street, Gordon Gekko, is now the hero in its sequel. He hasn't changed all that much either; the world has just gotten greedier around him. "Greed is good," he says in a lecture, "and now it seems it's legal." In 1987, Oliver Stone made a bold statement about greed and where we were headed as a society; he was ahead of his time. Unfortunately, instead of killing greed since the 80s, Wall Street simply got quieter and more clever about it, inventing new ways to play its game.

In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Stone shows he still understands the subject and has something to say, but he's late to the soap box. The biggest financial meltdown in history has already happened. Why didn't we get a new Wall Street 3-4 years ago, when it might have made a difference? Stone didn't see the financial market meltdown coming either; Now, instead of making a bold statement on greed, he's filmed a somewhat tame reaction to catastrophe. 

A matter of character

Money Never Sleeps is ultimately more interested in its characters than making any profound statement. While Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) was pure evil in Wall Street, eight years in prison has turned him into a human being. These days, he wants to reconnect with his daughter, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan); she blames Gordon for the death of her brother and will not speak with him. Her fiancé, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), is Gekko's path back in. 

Moore is a good guy, we think. He's a trader on Wall Street, but he can see ahead. While his company keeps trying to invest in oil, he clings to a new form of fusion energy (with laser beams) as his big investment. Moore sees Gekko on TV and then attends his book lecture. Gekko, it seems, has pulled an about-face; he lectures about an impending collapse (it's 2008), and how the world is so greedy that it's not even fun any more. Gekko is a dinosaur. While he enjoyed the revenge and game of trading, humans barely factor into the equation these days--it's mostly computers trading with computers. 

While Gekko and Moore get to know each other, the financial world begins to collapse, starting with the suicide of Moore's mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), the head of one of the largest banks in the world. Zabel no longer recognizes the market around him. He too, is a dinosaur. In one scene, he holds a revenue report with a serious decline on it, but is told that the company is making 25% more because they're profiting from their losses. All the "financial innovations" like hedges and derivatives over the last 15 years don't make sense to him, but he's invested with them because he had to keep up with the other banks. In a board room you'd only see in an Oliver Stone movie, the heads of all the banks collude around a table in the Federal Reserve. Every banker at the table knows that they're all headed toward collapse, but none want to shut the party down, not even the Fed. chairman. Instead, lead by Bretton James (Josh Brolin), they hang Zabel out to dry. The whole story begins to spiral from there.

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone shows that spiral in some interesting ways. The director paints over his scenes quite frequently. Several times, he uses New York's skyline to show graphs of the Dow Jones and other stocks. We often see characters faces from inside their Wall Street computer screens, with a constant buzz of color and charts humming around them. At one point, the cars and lights of nighttime NYC are replaced entirely by red and yellow stock lines--a neat trick. TVs showing CNBC also litter offices, perhaps hinting at how CNBC contributed to the problem instead of reporting on it objectively. Stone also uses some old school transitions and wipes throughout the movie, a la George Lucas. His use of a goofy sound effect and phone call bubble during one serious scene is particularly odd. As different as these techniques are from most modern films, they don't harm the production. As wrought as it is with cliches and odd directorial choices, the tale falls into place nicely.

Oliver Stone's attitude is different than it was in '87. While there is a sense of hope inherent in the film's main characters, the director's view on the financial world is less optimistic. At the end of Wall Street, we hoped that Gordon Gekko would go to jail, and he did. There is no such hope anymore. Stone sees the market as a never-ending series of booms and busts, warning that an even bigger meltdown, which he compares to the Cambrian explosion, looms ahead. Still, if Gordon Gekko can develop a conscience, doesn't that give hope to us all? 

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