Oliver Stone returns to the economic battleground of Wall Street in Money Never Sleeps, the 2010 sequel which takes place during the crash of 2008. Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan star opposite a returning Michael Douglas to see if greed is still good.When we were first starting out in this partnership with Akira Kurosawa you and I tried to place his movies into historical context where appropriate. There's no avoiding it with Oliver Stone's movies because what he creates is so tied with what is going on in America at that time. Keeping this in mind, releasing a sequel to Wall Street right after the horrific '08 collapse seems like he's playing an Ace he's had hidden for years and considering the way our action films evolved into schizophrenic paranoia with their editing he could have slipped into JFK mode along the way and might have had another cultural touchstone.
Instead, that same historical context morphs the film from one that is pleasing if dull to one that earns my hatred. If you divorce this film from American history and Stone's filmography it is a well acted tale about how elder's put up a false front to protect the innocent and those that don't know any better. Gordon Gekko, once again played by the commanding Michael Douglas, becomes someone who teaches these youngin's a lesson in hubris and how quickly all that money can go away. Carey Mulligan continues to charm and Shia LaBeouf gets through the film without taking any embarrassing pratfalls.
But the film plays as an optimistic distraction in light of Stone's career and the hardships under the recession makes it intolerably naïve. Instead of writing the screenplay himself the task was given to Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, responsible for such hard-hitting films like So Undercover and The Switch, and they completely defang Gordon Gekko. He's a caricature now, a once prominent businessman who squeaks out "Buy my book" and someone willing to abandon his pregnant daughter the next. Loeb and Schiff completely abandon the consistent menace of the "Greed is good" Gekko and write him with no consistency to offer blunt emotional impact depending on what each scene needs. Mulligan and LaBeouf's characters are entirely dependent on Gekko to move from A to B so whatever they bring to the table is negligible.
The worst part is that there is almost none of Stone's signature style to this film outside of what he, expectantly, lifts from his earlier film. Visually the setting starts in opulence and stays that way so we don't even get the story of progress seen in the background of Sheen's tale. There's nothing as outrageous and sudden as the big success makeover and most of the film takes place in what feels like the same room with the same characters whispering about money under dim lighting conditions. I suppose there's a meta point that could be made where a film about greed is also about the same old horrible people making the same decisions leading us to the same conclusion, but that would need more acknowledgement of history than Gekko showing up and reminding us how great Douglas is.
Considering this is a man who had recently been making a lot of documentaries, Stone really should have known better.We are in agreement. To me, Wall Street 2 (because I won't acknowledge the unnecessary and stupid subtitle), plays like a nice car slowly running out of gas until it falls off a cliff. When, oh when, will Oliver Stone run out of compelling, original things to say about contemporary society? Apparently around 1995.
There are two points where this movie shines, and both of them are successes not because of, but in spite of the screenplay. The first is Frank Langella, who manages to bring gravity to a cliché in a movie populated exclusively by clichés. As the LaBeouf character's mentor and the senior trader at a prominent firm on the verge of bankruptcy, Langella's is the only role who really embodies the built-up sense of dread over a disaster the industry knew was coming, and his mix of panic and shamed resignation made me wish the movie focused on his character's all-too-short arc.
Michael Douglas, as you mentioned, is also very good within the scope of the limited opportunities he's given. The brief moments where he is revealed as a desperate, embarrassed has-been softened by the constant reminders that the world has forgotten him are some of the best in the movie. Douglas has a way of ever-so-slightly peeling back the iconic hubris of Gekko just enough to show how pathetic of a man he is when his status is stripped from him. There's a conversation he has with his daughter (Mulligan) midway through the movie where I thought the family melodrama was actually going to give way to something genuine, so good are the performances.
Then Stone pulls a third-act “reveal” that undermines any and all character development that has come before it by making everything an obvious (and boring) long con. The disaster here isn't just that the filmmakers chose to tell an ordinary story about familial relationships instead of a complex and incisive expose on the contemporary financial industry—it's that they squander even their few chances to make the movie work as a character drama by pulling their third act from what seems like a generic 90s thriller.
Before the hilariously out-of-step ending (it's like the screenwriters were playing a game of “how many contradictions can we cram into 20 pages”), the movie has the potential, at times, to break completely away from its terrible dance around contemporary financial issues and tell an engaging story. But it never does that, precisely because, as you mention, Stone is so concerned with throwing in aspects of various Wall Street scandals as a backdrop. It's as if he thinks his look (on a very basic level) at a few elements of the larger problems in the financial sector will somehow educate the audience—as if the target demographic is out-of-touch junior high students.
So, where's the controversy?
I was offended by the stupidity of the whole thing, especially the "money solves all the characters' problems when we were JUST TALKING ABOUT how personal betrayal over money was the issue" ending. But I don't think that's what you're talking about exactly.
How did Stone capture the zeitgeist this time?
He made a film about the recession while we were still limping out of it. That's part of the reason that this is such a wasted opportunity because the elements were perfect to create another water cooler conversation about whether unchecked business growth is a good thing. Instead he enlisted screenwriters more interested in playing to a dull melodramatic level and not trying to deal with any big ideas at all. I'm still not a fan of Wall Street, but it's heavy-handed approach was trying to do something with the era instead of making a dull story out of it.
That's interesting, but is it any good?
Certainly not for me, but for those who have never seen Oliver Sone at his late-'80s early-'90s prime there's still some skill on display. The problem is that the skill is in the vein of a songwriter who knows the words but not the music. Stone's technical prowess is still supreme but by refusing to take any chances he ends up creating a film that's essentially an overlong demo reel of rehashed style.
As if it wasn't bad enough that Stone and company turned in what amounts to toothless fan-fiction from people still clinging to the first movie, the director's style has completely overstayed its welcome with me. In what seems like an effort to compensate for the utter lack of insight in the story, he randomly and obnoxiously intercuts to useless charts, graphs, and metaphorical images, patting the viewer on the head for following along with the “complicated” conversations and plot points.
My favorite of these occurs when LaBeouf is pitching an investor on a company doing energy research, and he explains a new technology that allows them to pump cold water from the ocean through a series of copper pipes used to cool a reactor. The images first of waves and then computer animated water rushing through a plumbing network as he says this are hilarious for two reasons: 1. Understanding this technology isn't important to the larger story—at all—and 2. Stone you condescending asshole, I know what ocean water and tubes look like.