Friday, September 24, 2010

Poor investments: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Taken as a diptych, 1987’s
Wall Street and the new Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps form a kind of documentary about New York City, computers, phones, suits, the music of David Byrne and Brian Eno—whose collaborations provide the soundtrack for both movies—and the enduring appeal of Michael Douglas, who returns as nefarious financial shark Gordon Gekko, a role for which he won an Oscar and which, to me at least, most strongly invokes the screen persona of Douglas’ legendary father. Unfortunately, watching Wall Street and its sequel back-to-back gives you the sense that as technology became faster and smaller and markets more vulnerable, the financial sector became a lot less fun, not just for Gekko, who spent many of the intervening years behind bars for insider trading, but also for director Oliver Stone and his collaborators, who seem so intent on pitching their own theories about exactly why the 2008 economic meltdown melted, on ensuring that we understand that greed is actually bad—in short, on preaching to the choir—that they forgot to invest their story with any compelling new characters.

While not a complete failure, this feels like a waste of a pretty brilliant opportunity to interrogate recent history through high stakes drama. To say that Douglas is the best thing in
Money Never Sleeps isn’t much of a compliment. Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have written an overly talky, cliché-laden script with too many blustery speeches, and the frustrating truth is that even Douglas gets stuck with bum lines, though he handles them with a lot more grace that Shia Labeouf, the idealistic young protégé/adversary and ostensible protagonist, a character barely coherent and most often dissolving into the scenery. Carey Mulligan meanwhile has to play not only LeBeouf’s fiancée but also Gekko’s very angry daughter, which means she spends most of the movie crying. It’s never explained how exactly a young woman who runs a successful Leftist news site and loathes her arbitrageur father fell in love with this money-obsessed young trader, which makes their inevitable break-up and reunion all the more puzzling. About the only actor who gets any mileage out of Money Never Sleeps is Eli Wallach, who’s 94, which means his Federal Reserve Board executive actually lived through the crash of’29. He’s barely in the movie yet encapsulates an awful lot of Stone’s thesis simply through the creepy shifts in attitude he brings to his final two scenes. Survival on Wall Street, this old pro implies, is about knowing when to stomp someone into the carpet and when to put on a big smile for the guy with the keys to the bank.

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