Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
By Hugh Lilly
Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for remakes, reboots, spinoffs, sequels, prequels and sidequels knows no bounds. Adding to the slush pile now is Oliver Stone, with a sequel to his 1987 film Wall Street. In that film, a paean to the excesses of the ’80s, Michael Douglas’ corporate raider Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko gets done for insider trading, while his would-be yuppie protégé Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) learns a harsh lesson about “not living off the buying and selling of others.”
In the new movie, subtitled Money Never Sleeps (after a line from the 1987 picture), Gekko comes out of jail a reformed man and, eight years later, in June of 2008, writes a book (called “Is Greed Good?”) about his experiences which he then tours on talk shows and the lecture circuit. Greed, he now says, appears not only to still be “good,” but, left unchecked, it seems to have also become legal. (The line in the original film seems to have inadvertently served as a mantra for real-world brokers everywhere, leading to the Global Financial Crisis which the new film capitalises on.) Like the original, which was released mere weeks after Wall Street’s biggest single-day percentage loss, the new film comes hot on the heels of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
Gekko’s estranged twenty-something daughter Winnie—played with a passable American accent by the beguiling British actress Carey Mulligan (An Education, Mark Romanek’s forthcoming adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go)—is disillusioned with, well, capitalism in general (despite living in a palatial apartment with views of Central Park) and thus runs a struggling non-profit left-wing/environmentalist Politico-esque news website. She blames her dad for her older brother’s drug-induced suicide, and hasn’t spoken to him for most of her life.
Her fiancé Jake (Shia LeBeouf) is an up-and-coming trader at Keller Zabel, an investment firm modelled on Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers; he’s the new Bud Fox, except that he’s a little bit cleaner because he’s trying to start his own green energy company in anticipation of “the next big bubble.” When the head of Keller Zabel (an excellent Frank Langella), ends it all by plunging off a subway platform into the path of an oncoming train, Jake is left without a father figure/mentor, so seeks consolation from (and plots revenge with) his future father-in-law. Eli Wallach tools around in the wings as a dottery elder member of the Board of Directors at Keller Zabel—incredulously, he’s meant to be old enough to remember October 1929.
Josh Brolin plays a variation on Gekko, a money-hungry senior broker whom Jake suspects had something to with Zabel’s suicide. The role was offered to Brolin lookalike Javier Bardem, but he absconded to Indonesia to appear opposite Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love. Brolin has said that he had to lose 30 pounds in a month to physically prepare for the role.
Shia LeBeouf’s performance in this film is abysmal. It’s worse than Sheen’s turn in the first film—and that’s saying something. Hollywood ordaining LeBeouf The Next Big Thing was a big mistake. Jesse Eisenberg, had he not been busy portraying Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, would have been a great choice.
Douglas deservedly won an Academy Award for his performance in the first film, and he’s very good here, although the script is considerably less polished than the 1987 one, which was written by Stone and Stanley Weiser—the man who also wrote W., Stone’s atrocious Josh Brolin-starring biopic of Dubya from a few years ago. The new film is written by Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, 21) and Stephen Schiff, who scripted Adrian Lyne’s Lolita in 1997 and Clint Eastwood’s so-so late-’90s death-row thriller True Crime. The script has some fairly massive pacing problems, and is plagued by jargon and attempts to ram information down the throats of the audience.
One of the only good things about the film (aside from Carey Mulligan’s exceptionally cute Hepburn-esque dimples) is its soundtrack, which features songs by David Byrne & Brian Eno—namely “Home,” “Life is Long,” “One Fine Day” and the title track from the duo’s trans-Atlantic 2008 album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, their second collaboration since 1981’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, from which Stone took “Mea Culpla” and “America is Waiting” for use in the original film. Like the first picture, Money Never Sleeps uses Talking Heads’ “This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody)” over its closing credits.
The worst things in the new film are its cameos: a vomit-inducing, narcissistic one from Stone, a brief appearance from a very confused-looking Graydon Carter (editor of Vanity Fair); one from Donald Trump’s combover; and one from Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox—although the last one was to be expected, and is both the most enjoyable and the most scenery-chewy. Stone’s cameo is unforgivably obscene; it’s nowhere near as subtle or brief as it should have been, and coupling it with cheap early-’90s computer graphics and a bunch of almost impenetrable, gratuitously didactic jargon doesn’t make it any better. (The Other Guys, reviewed in this issue, contemplates the same topics with far less bravado in the infographics that run over its closing titles.)
This is Stone’s third fiction film in a row, after W. and the equally unpalatable World Trade Center, to focus on events of very recent history almost immediately after their occurrence. W. didn’t work because the film lacked the necessary critical (temporal) distance, and World Trade Center didn’t stand a chance at being watchable, not just because it starred Nic Cage but because, even five whole years after 9/11, emotions were still at an all-time high; nothing but a deeply moving eulogy to America and its Freedom-with-a-capital-F-loving fallen heroes would be acceptable, especially not from a director as entrenched in the Hollywood machine as Stone.
Were it not for the forced moralizing and the film’s ludicrous happy ending—replete with Brooklyn rooftop wedding reception-cum-baby shower—Money Never Sleeps would have been an interesting, somewhat insightful fictional take on an important cultural moment. Even as it denounces the lucrative excesses of capitalism, Stone’s film basks in the reflected glory of so many socialites’ eveningwear and the shiny oak-lined boardrooms and cityscape views its characters enjoy. The film could have been a cool-headed attempt at tackling a serious topic, as Talk Radio (Stone’s only truly great film, which immediately followed Wall Street in 1988) was. As it stands, the film is a boisterous, loudmouth, weak rehash of a movie that really wasn’t even that great to begin with.