Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
by Richard von Busack
The new Oliver Stone film starts with a critique of capitalism that doesn’t really want to critique capitalism and keeps going. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps unfolds into a good father/bad father/“but no matter how he behaves, remember he’s your father” story. It sums up: “People are mixed bags.” And then one tries to recall ever seeing a character in the history of Oliver Stone films that could be remotely described as a mixed bag.
Where’s the mix in the saintly Wall Street trader played by Frank Langella, who is more like Santa Claus than a broker? Where is the mix in the evil trader Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who dresses in motorcycle leathers and keeps a copy of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children in his office? (This was a joke just done on The Simpsons, with Monty Burns’ head on the painting.) Bretton all but asks our poor Jake Moore from Long Island (the lamentable, inescapable Shia LeBeouf) to sign a pact with him in blood.
Jake’s instincts aren’t mixed: he’s busting his figs on the Street to finance his pet project, described as “that little energy company in California,” which is developing laser fusion. As Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie, Carey Mulligan does the unmixed-girl role par excellence: she weeps a lot and then gets pregnant. She runs “a leftist website” that will somehow turn world shattering if only properly financed.
The film has fine cityscapes, and Eli Wallach doesn’t half pull some impressive scowls (while muttering weird Clifford Odets metaphors); speaking of Mr. Burns, he easily cinches the part in a live-action Simpsons movie. During a benefit party, the plutocrats’ faces are right: they look pampered and out of touch. The sequence is Stone at his best, using the waltz from Carousel to accompany their dance on the brink of the financial failure. The computer-animated bridges are zesty, far more so than the songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno, which seem intended for a movie about sweet romantic love. The money is clearly up onscreen: as in an adventurous helicopter shot that follows Jake from the sidewalk right up to a sky-high conference table.
But as Gordon Gekko, Michael Douglas is just about completely mush. He’s reformed, written a book called Is Greed Good? and is spending his new liberty after many years in jail, blatting out platitudes. At a lecture, Today’s Young People hang on every word as Gekko Jeremiahs it from the podium. I would have loved an insert of a sophomore’s hand scrawling, “Yes, how very true!” on a notepad as the ex-felon makes observations like “You’re all pretty much fucked.” There are autobiographical touches in the script regarding Douglas in real life that create a double bind: if you acknowledge them, you’re vicious, and if you don’t acknowledge them, you’re obviously uninformed.
In sum, Stone’s well-known immunity to shame flabbergasts you anew. The world has changed since the 1987 original (documentaries now give us a better idea of how the Wall Street mess hit the fan). Here, it’s the stale breath of melodrama that overwhelms you, not the breathtaking qualities of the barbs aimed at the master class.