by Brett Parker
Many consider the character of Gordon Gekko to be the original Shark of Wall Street and our fascination with him isn’t much different from those aquatic predators themselves. Both are creatures that dominate their domain with the utmost confidence and damn near sparkle in their shiny and sharp exteriors. Their chain of command is reassured with an aura of fear, for all the underlings know when pushed, this creature can become a relentless killing machine, destroying all those around him to remain dominant. Some predators can be undeniably sinister in their nature, but it is the fact that they can know no other demeanor that fascinates us. The same can be said of Gordon Gekko.
Of course it was Michael Douglas’s hypnotically calculating and smooth portrayal of Gekko that was the crown jewel of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, a penetrating and hellfire-tinged expose of the corruption lurking within the cracks of the New York Stock Trading Game. Through the morally-ambiguous vessel of Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, we were given an entry point into Gekko’s glamorous and shady world of insider trading and bloodthirsty financial competition. While the film was meant to warn us of the cancerous greed and rotting morals that could flourish in our capitalist system, it’s a sad fact that too many moviegoers were taking by Gekko’s flashiness and confidence, swaying them to become financial pirates themselves. As a colleague of mine once quipped, “no film has done more social damage than Wall Street. Here was a satire of the business world, boasting ‘Greed is Good,’ and all these idiots took it seriously! Now look at the mess we’re in!”
Most of us are fully aware of the current financial mess we’re in, in which Greed proved, in fact, to not be good. The economy is at a devastating low with the real estate and job market at record lows. Because of our capitalist tastes for excess, countless businesses have gone under and millions of Americans are unemployed. There are people in some circles who feel the root of all our current economic problems can be traced back to Gordon Gekko’s popularized philosophies (it’s a dramatic theory, but an existing one nonetheless). With this in mind, Oliver Stone has decided to return to the stocks game in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to show us just what Gekko would think of the current situation and how he would conduct himself against the anxiety-ridden brokers who now play the markets in desperate attempts at survival.
The film opens in 2001, with Gekko being released from prison after serving a sentence for insider trading and security fraud. Standing alone with no one to pick him up, Gekko leaves the prison armed with his old suit, giant cellular telephone, and a giant wad of notes, undoubtedly observations regarding the financial world that has grown troubling in Gekko’s wake. Seven years pass by and Gekko becomes the author of a best-selling book entitled Is Greed Good?, a financial expose that accurately predicts the problems that will cause our capitalist economy to collapse beyond prepare. If Gekko was the reptilian tycoon who started economical problems, he is now a wise old prophet here to prepare it.
Gekko’s rehabilitation back into the world continues with his crusade to make amends with his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Winnie blames her father with every negative thing that has befallen her family, most particularly her brother’s suicide, and wants nothing to do with him. Gordon thinks he has found a way in with her through Jake (Shia LeBeouf), her ambitious fiancé. Jake is a young stockbroker who hopes to do good in the world by assisting the growth of an Alternative Fuel Plant in California. Both Jake and Winnie are so virtuous and good-natured that they highlight the brewing viciousness around them, which there is plenty of. Jake’s boss and mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), was forced out of his own company and driven to suicide by the ruthless billionaire Bretton James (Josh Brolin) who has fashioned himself as the top dog of Wall Street. Jake sympathizes with Winnie’s pain, yet he can’t help but realize the financial genius Gordon possesses. Perhaps if Jake can help Gordon reconnect with his daughter, then Gordon can help Jake take revenge on Bretton amidst a collapsing market.Money Never Sleeps adequately acknowledges the current issues plaguing Wall Street and finds shrewd ways to incorporate Gekko back into this world, yet we never feel the film reaches the hotbed boiling point it needs to. The current economic crisis has induced so much frustration, anxiety, depression, and unease into today’s country that the film’s great failing is that it does not strongly induce those same feelings into a film audience. Oliver Stone is known for a gonzo style of filmmaking that takes no prisoners and induces controversy at the drop of a hat. Yet here he keeps things too subdued, too formal. He curiously displays more hopeful idealism that cynical realism. He acknowledges the current mess and strives for an optimistic future when what we really want him to do is revel feverishly in the mess. If this film had the paranoia of JFK and the sloppy anger of Natural Born Killers, we would’ve really had a scorcher on our hands.
The brilliance of the original Wall Street was the way Robert Richardson’s cinematography dived right into the water with the Shark’s, giving off a devilish glee as we rubbed elbows with nasty predators. The camera had a head-first, bystander’s view into this world, so we got the experience of being at ground level with these new age pirates. The excessive and shadowy nature of this shiny new world came at us from all sorts of unseen angles and only occasionally stood back to take a breather from the amorality at hand. We were standing in the center of the Lion’s Den with no easy exit, and we were hypnotized by their predatory behavior the entire time.
The cinematography this time around, by the Oscar-nominated Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Babel, Alexander), keeps things very tidy and formal. The camera has a classical formalism that exposes the crisp shininess of the New York Cityscape but puts a considerable damper on the ominous trouble lurking beneath the Markets. Stone is usually fearless in letting his camera pound relentlessly on the loathsome depths of human nature, but here he keeps things curiously simple, even resorting to old-school Hollywood techniques (perhaps he’s demonstrating that this tale of capitalist greed and falling-from-grace is a timeless one). On a surface level, Stone keeps things moving in a smooth, subtle manner, but let’s face it: we don’t go to an Oliver Stone movie for smoothness and subtlety.
Of course the best thing about the film is the return of Michael Douglas to the Oscar-Winning role that launched a thousand traders. When a famous actor becomes strongly associated with an iconic role, they have a tendency to walk through the performance on revisiting. Not Douglas, he’s just as focused as ever. He plays up his soothing voice and confident precision to show that Gekko is just as intelligent, detached, and calculating as he ever was. The screenplay teases us with the idea that Gekko may be seeking a genuine redemption, but then pulls the rug out from under us when Gekko commits an act that’s astonishingly conniving. It’s only then that we realize that asking Gekko to change his ways is like asking a Shark not to kill another creature ever again. Predators are incapable of changing their natures. It’s that essential fact that haunts this sequel. To stare into the abyss that is Gekko’s soul is to stare into the abyss that caused are financial problems in the first place.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a competent display of Hollywood formalism that spells out the mechanisms of our financial doom and gives us satisfying answers to questions we’ve wondered about Gordon Gekko over the years. It plays with our anxieties half the time, making us wish the film plugged deeper into the hellish fires of our financial nightmares. Much disappointment has been voiced about the film’s upbeat, sentimental ending, but I feel it’s extremely interesting that Oliver Stone, of all people, is showing us a little sentiment. While we always expect Stone to highlight the negative for us, I find it oddly compelling that he’s pointing us towards the positive for a change. He hopes that maybe in this crazy, mixed-up world, two people can learn to favor values such as love and family above financial warfare. And maybe, just maybe, a sinister schemer like Gordon Gekko could grow a heart after all.