Note: beware major spoilers for the original Wall Street in the below review, and minor spoilers for the sequel.
In 1987, Gordon Gekko was a morally-diseased indictment of corporate greed and the villain of Wall Street, who got his comeuppance at the end of the film with a lengthy prison sentence.
But to the dismay of writer Stanley Weiser and director Oliver Stone, Michael Douglas was so good in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Gekko that most audiences embraced the character and his “greed is good” mantra while overlooking the deeper meaning of the film; which, in simpler terms, implied that greed may not be so good.
Reagan-era audiences might be excused for this oversight. In 2010, after a global economic meltdown saw Wall Street shenanigans torn apart by mainstream media and Bernie Madoff schemers sent to prison, I imagine audiences are out for blood. Unfortunately, director Oliver Stone isn’t.
In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gordon Gekko is no longer a villain, not even an antihero, but the wise and heroic mentor who sets out to right Wall Street wrongs in the months before the 2008 stock market collapse. Is this the same character?
He doesn’t have to be: in the film’s best scene, Gekko has a stairway chat with his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), tears in his eyes, begging for forgiveness and claiming to have seen the light. It’s a cliché, but Douglas sells it so well – with so much heart – that we (and Winnie) really believe that Gekko has become a better man.
Backtracking a bit: Winnie may hate her father, but has allowed a younger version of him to become her fiancée. Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a broker at Keller Zabel Investments, a financial institution that is about to go under due to some rumors supposedly spread by antagonist Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Jake seems to be fighting the good fight, supporting green energy and fusion research; but does he really believe in it? Or does he believe it’ll make him a lot of money?
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is undeniably well made, a slick and engaging feature that stunned me when the credits began to roll; over two hours had passed, but the film felt no longer than a good hour-long TV drama. It’s easily Oliver Stone’s best fiction film in a decade (since, at least, Any Given Sunday), offering up some wonderful New York City scenery and first-rate performances, including LaBeouf in his first real adult role, and Frank Langella and 94-year-old Eli Wallach in smaller turns.
And of course, Michael Douglas, as good as Gekko here as he was in the original, perhaps better; no actor has won two Oscars for the same role, but Douglas might have a shot here (has anyone been nominated twice for the same character?) The film glows whenever he’s onscreen.
Undemanding audiences should just eat this up. But I’m just too damn demanding to take it at face value. There’s only one thing wrong with Money Never Sleeps, a third-act decision by Gekko that I shall tiptoe around to avoid spoilers, that turns the whole thing upside down and inside out and turns Money Never Sleeps into the antithesis of the original Wall Street.
Oliver Stone has drunk the kool-aid: greed is good, he seems to be telling us. After an economic meltdown, greed and financial bullshit save the day for our protagonists; it’s only the rest of us that have to suffer because of all the Wall Street nonsense.
Stone, once a prolific and very political filmmaker who delivered powerful anti-war messages in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and political conspiracies in JFK and Nixon, has completely lost his bite. I suspected it during Alexander, and had it half-confirmed during W., his disappointingly bland and punch-less biography of George W. Bush. Money Never Sleeps seals the deal.
One presumes that Stone’s politics have changed over the years, but that isn’t the problem; the problem is his now-complete inability to deliver a coherent political statement of any kind. He’s still making these politically-charged films, only now they’re gutless and impotent.
The real Wall Street 2 ends with Gordon Gekko dying in the gutter, abandoned by his family and regretting his life decisions. That’s not the film Stone has given us, but Money Never Sleeps doesn’t even work by its own rules. You’ll enjoy this one if you’re OK with its message, or undemanding enough to let it slide. For the rest of us, it’s almost a slap in the face.