Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

© 2010 Ray Wong

A sequel to the 1987 original, which earned Michael Douglas a Best Actor Oscar, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is really a commentary on the state of the financial industry.

After being in jail for eight years, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released and nobody remembers him, not even his own family. Several years later, in 2008, he reemerges with a new book Greed Is Good. He believes world finance is a systematic corruption and a collective moral hazard (which, as Gekko explains, means people who manage others' money without any personal responsibilities). He believes the financial bubble is doomed to burst.

Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a trader on Wall Street, and he's engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). When his firm goes down because of a vicious rumor spread by rival Bretton James (Josh Brolin), his senior partner Louis Zabel (Fran Langella) commits suicide. Jake vows to avenge his death by infiltrating into James's firm. Meanwhile, he tries to patch things up between Gekko and Winnie.

Then the real estate bubble bursts and Wall Street is in turmoil. James and his partner Jules (Eli Wallach) manage to get a huge bailout from the US government by selling them fear. Meanwhile, Jake has his heart set on a company with a new technology for clean alternative energy. Unable to convince James to invest, Jake turns to Gekko, who says he has $100 million saved in a Swiss bank…

Despite top billing, Michael Douglas (Solitary Man) only has a secondary role. It's always good to see Douglas in a drama, and he reprises his Oscar-winning role as Gekko with relish. This Gekko seems to be softer and wiser, but we still see the ruthlessness lurking underneath. Douglas's performance is seasoned and I wish he had more screen time.

I honestly don't understand why Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) is getting all these high-profile roles. He's a decent actor, but he has a very limited range. He's somewhat unconvincing as a Wall Street wiz-kid, and he's too light for the role, especially when you compare him with Charlie Sheen (who has as cameo) in the original. Josh Brolin (Jonah Hex), on the other hand, has really matured as a dramatic actor. As James, he is aggressive, arrogant and ruthless, a stark contrast to his previous performances in W or Milk.

The women don't have much to do. Carey Mulligan (An Education) is fine as Gekko's daughter and Jake's fiance, but she mostly plays the hurt and unhappy child. There's not much character development for her. Susan Sarandon (The Lovely Bones) has a very small role as Jake's mother, who quit her job as a nurse to become a real estate agent. She does her best in the largely irrelevant role. Eli Wallach (The Ghost Writer) is solid as James's mentor and Wall Street tycoon, and Frank Langella (The Box) gives one of the most memorable performances as Jake's mentor and father figure.

Written by Allan Loeb (21) and Stephen Schiff (True Crime), the screenplay is a convoluted mess that tries too hard and does too much. It's a political drama. It's a personal story. It's a social commentary on the state of our financial world and public policies. It tries to be everything for everyone. The plot is overwrought with too many threads and characters. The points of view are unfocused: is it Jake's story, or Gekko's? The dialogue is serviceable, but probably incomprehensible for people who are not familiar with financial terms, concepts or jargons. I have a hard time following the plot.

Character development is kept to the minimum, and their motivations are not always clear. While Gekko seems to have a master plan and James does what he does, Jake is the big problem as the protagonist of the story. I don't have a clear sense of what he really wants. He seems to waver in his objectives. On one hand, he tries to bring down Bretton James, but on the other hand he's trying to make him lots of money. Also, his relationship with Gekko is built on a flimsy pretense. To complicate things, Winne's role is reduced to a victim who has no true opinion on anything. She's a weak, underdeveloped character who serves only as a pawn in this game, as Gekko explains later.

Oliver Stone (W) is an excellent direction, no doubt. His cinematic skills are undeniable, and he's able to move things along despite the convoluted story and fractured points of view. It's just a shame that the story lacks focus and we don't quite know who to root for.

The problem is the writing. Gekko is such a fascinating character that the writers could have done so much by putting him front and center. Instead, we get a weak character played by a limited actor, and the story loses its focus with too many threads, trying to do too much. This isn't something that will please Wall Street.

Stars: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff,
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13 brief strong language and thematic elements
Running Time: 133 minutes


Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 7.2 out of 10

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