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Cannes: Oliver Stone's 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps' is a shrewd and entertainingly overstuffed sequel

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money-never-sleepsImage Credit: Barry WetcherIf you watch it now, you can giggle at the giant mobile phone and gawk at the primitive computer screens, with their flashing green numbers, but Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) has lost none of its heady zing. It’s still a rush, a thriller for the brain, a classic Hollywood myth of an insatiable, cocky, anxious age. It’s also one of the most karmically well-timed movies ever made. Wall Street came out at the end of 1987, a couple of months after the stock-market crash, and though it had been shot beforehand, in essence — in spirit — it anticipated the crash. Stone knew, of course, that the culture of greed wasn’t good, that it was a roller-coaster coming off the track. Yet even as the movie gave us that warning, it also gave us the ride. It channeled the fever of the ’80s — it had the hunger for money in its ominously propulsive, digital-trade rhythms. What made Wall Street unique is that it was a before-the-crash movie and an after-the-crash movie at the same time.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Stone’s avidly awaited sequel, which had its world premiere showing this morning at the Cannes Film Festival, is very much an after-the-crash movie. Not that it lacks money fever. Like the original Wall Street, it’s a darkly exciting steel-and-glass vision of pirahnas in the water, of ruthlessly wealthy, nattily dressed men doing whatever it takes to make themselves wealthier. Stone, working from a screenplay by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, conjures that same breathless atmosphere of dramatic liquidity, of a plot that hurtles along at the speed of information.

There’s a lot going on in Money Never Sleeps, maybe a little too much at once. The movie is a finance drama, a political drama, and a sentimental family drama, all wrapped inside what’s supposed to be a wised-up homage to one of the most compelling characters in screen history, the gold-plated investment shark Gordon Gekko. Even as the movie is racing forward, it is also, inevitably, looking back — at the meltdown of the financial system, at the teetering and toppling of giant banks, at all the cut corners and bad practices and bailout deals and lessons learned. Like its predecessor, Money Never Sleeps is very well-timed, but unlike the original Wall Street, it’s trying so self-consciously to be a zeitgeist movie that almost nothing in it is casual or incidental. It’s not so much ripped from the headlines as it is derived, thought out, and processed from the headlines. The movie is no classic, but it’s vibrantly acted and entertainingly overstuffed, a shrewd and complex finance melodrama that pulses along with hardboiled verve.

In a prologue set in 2001, Gekko (Michael Douglas), now stripped of his fortune, gets released from prison after having served eight years for insider trading and securities fraud. (I guess it took a few years to bring him to trial.) His hair is gray, his flesh weary, and though his eyes still sparkle like money, he looks to be a chastened man. But before it gets to the fortunes of this legendary figure, Money Never Sleeps has juicy fun replaying some of our own more recent history. It leaps forward to 2008, when Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a proprietary trader at Keller Zabel — the film’s fictionalized fusion of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers — is called into the office of the firm’s managing partner, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), who hands him a bonus check for $1.45 million. It should be a happy moment, but Zabel, Jake’s mentor, is in misery. He can’t understand his own financial empire anymore (the trades built upon debts that are globally bundled abstractions), and he knows, what’s more, that the firm is skating on a thin ice of leverage, and that the ice is about to crack.

Stone stages a terrific scene in which Louis pleads for his company’s life at a meeting of the Federal Reserve Board, only to have a knife stuck in him by Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a poshly powerful partner at the many-tentacled investment firm of Churchill Schwartz (the film’s gloss on Goldman Sachs). It’s Stone’s muckraking notion, presented in fictionalized terms, that the fall of Bear Stearns was sealed by the strong-arming of a rival bank, and though I can’t begin to comment on the validity of that, it makes for an intensely compelling backroom–soap-opera version of the financial crisis.

With his firm now folded into Churchill Schwartz, Jake goes to work for Bretton, even though he’s more than wary of him; Bretton is presented, knowingly, as the film’s new-style Gordon Gekko figure. His home office, with its Goya canvas hung on dark wood paneling, looks like the devil’s den, and Brolin, flashing an oily version of an all-American grin, excels at dramatizing the temptation offered by ruthless men. Except that in this case, our hero isn’t biting — not really. LaBeouf’s Jake may have gotten into the game to make money, but his passion is alternative energy, which he regards as the future, both for himself as an investor and for an America paralyzingly addicted to fossil fuels. When Churchill Schwartz is approached by an investor from China, Jake makes the case for them to invest in United Fusion, a cutting-edge outfit that promises to convert sea water into energy. As Jake (and the movie) presents it, this is good business and good policy; for Jake, it’s the chance to have his capitalist cake and eat it too. But even if, like me, you look at this green-technology whiz-kid trader, in his skinny tailored suits, and think, “He’s right about all of this,” it’s striking that Jake is never really tempted by the financial sins around him. And that makes him a bit too much of a lily-white hero. Shia LaBeouf, with his quick-fire brain and handsome impassive scowl, has grown up into a dynamic actor, and he’s sexy now too, but I wish Money Never Sleeps gave him more shades to play. I wish it gave him chancier drama and less mission.

Of course, there is one additional complicating factor: Jake lives with, and plans to wed, his equally idealistic girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) — who happens to be Gordon Gekko’s estranged daughter. The two men start to meet in secret, each with his own agenda. Both want payback on Bretton, but Gekko is also using Jake to revive his relationship with Winnie; Jake allies himself with Gordon because…well, I hate to say it, but he needs a father figure (this is a Wall Street sequel, after all), especially one like Gordon, who has replaced “Greed is good” as a mantra with “Leverage is bad.” And who would disagree? Gekko, after his time in prison, has become an oracle of responsible greed, as well as a man full of regret at how he messed up his family’s life. If that all sounds a bit soft, even cheesy, it is, but Michael Douglas makes it believable — and compelling. Even in Gordon’s chastened state, Douglas gives him that same electric avidity, and that aura of trickiness too. There’s always more to him than meets the eye.

There is much else in Money Never Sleeps: brain-tickling PowerPoint financial graphics; a witty encounter between Gekko and Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, who is now more Gekko-ish than Gekko; a deft little performance by John Buffalo Mailer (Norman’s son) as Jake’s Long Island finance buddy; fun cameo appearances by Graydon Carter, Peggy Siegel, and other bold-face notables; and an ongoing bit of metaphysical speculation about the nature of financial bubbles, which the film seems to regard as destructive and essential at the same time. Stone has conceived the movie as an inventory of our current crisis, and on that level it seizes and holds you. As fiction, however, it’s competing, in an odd way, with the very events from which it takes off. For sheer dramatic impact, Money Never Sleeps can certainly hold a candle up to reality, but it can’t top it.