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Friday, Jan. 28, 2011

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'

It's a film about corrupt bankers — so where's the rage?

There was a time when an Oliver Stone film would approach its topic in much the same way that a pit-bull would approach a burglar's meaty calf. Films such as "JFK," "Natural Born Killers" and "Salvador" knew exactly who their targets were, and didn't mince around trying to be "fair" or objective; it was teeth on bone all the way, baby.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Greedier is not goodier: Disgraced trader Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and his soon-to-be son-in-law Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) talk dirty cash in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." © 2010 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Director: Oliver Stone
Running time: 133 min.
Language: English
Opens Feb. 4, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Thus, it's been surprising to see the relative restraint with which Stone has approached such bogeyman biopics as "Nixon" and "W." (as in George Dubya Bush). Perhaps it's an attempt to look less partisan and more reasonable — empathetic even! — but his post-"Nixon" films suffer from the lack of that old wild-eyed righteous indignation.

That's certainly true of his latest, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," a sequel to Stone's 1987 hit "Wall Street," which featured a memorable performance by Michael Douglas as slick-haired, alpha-male trader Gordon Gekko, with his era-defining mantra "Greed is good." This film appeared at the height of the junk bond/insider trading scandals of the '80s, when superstar financiers such as Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky made billions through opaque methods before the whole caboodle went up in flames; both men wound up doing jail time for their shady dealings.

My, how times change. Gordon's reappearance on the big screen some two decades later is a chance for Stone to ram home how little we've learned from past excesses. Just recall Gordon ranting at Charlie Sheen's earnest young trader: "You're not naive enough to think we're living in a democracy, are you buddy? It's a free market. . . . We make the rules, pal."

He was right then, but it's never been more in-your-face apparent than it is now. How else could financial services firm JPMorgan Chase get $25 billion in a government bailout, then pay out nearly $10 billion in compensation and bonuses a year later, while former employee William M. Daley (who reportedly made circa $5 million a year) is appointed White House chief of staff? (A move which gives a whole new meaning to "Yes, we can," and it probably involves you bending over.)

Like many sequels, Stone's new "Wall Street" hews pretty close to the original. The earlier film had Sheen as the young, impressionable broker choosing between good and bad father figures (as he also did in Stone's "Platoon"), with salt-of-the-earth prole Martin Sheen and heartless yuppie Douglas vying for his soul. The new "Wall Street" does much the same: Shia LaBeouf plays a hungry young trader named Jake Moore; his first father figure, an old-school broker named Lou (Frank Langella), tops himself after his company goes belly-up under the weight of toxic debt during the stock market crash of 2007.

Jake then goes after ruthless trader Bretton James (a saturnine Josh Brolin), whom he holds responsible for his firm's demise, but winds up being taken under his wing and schooled in business sans ethics.

The wild card is disgraced financial whiz Gordon, fresh out of prison and possibly reformed. Jake is engaged to Gordon's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), and is attempting to reconcile the two. But Gordon may or may not be a changed man; he has a past agenda with Bretton, and other scores to settle . . .

Stone's film is great at exploring the stock market crash, and the back-room deals that resulted in the controversial government bailout of those firms deemed "too big to fail." The director is less assured, though, with the personal story. The devil, as usual, has all the best tunes, and while Brolin and Douglas get to feast on red-meat lines, the rest of the cast are just taking up space.

As I've said before about LaBeouf, every generation gets the Keanu Reeves it deserves. This actor always has that look of a dog left chained to a parking meter while its owner is inside having a pint. Mulligan, so pitch-perfect in "An Education," is just all teary, lip-quivering over-emoting for the whole damn film.

If there was one thing we have learned from the financial meltdown and bailout of America's banks and brokerages, it's that there is no happy ending: The reckless risk-takers and crooks got their butts pulled out of the fire, the taxpayer got screwed, and now it's bonus time on Wall St. again. And God forbid that anyone should actually be prosecuted for this.

Time was a film could embrace such a scathing cynicism — see Paul Schrader's excellent "Blue Collar" (1978, with Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel) for an example of a film that shows the average Joe getting completely hammered by the system. Yes, such films can be a bummer — "Blue Collar," though, was also extremely funny — but they also have the advantage of lifting the veil, of showing an unfair system for what it is — with no illusions. That can leave you walking out of the theater mad as hell, and wanting to do something about it.

Then there's Stone's "Wall Street" sequel which — mild spoiler alert — closes with the dubious notion that revealing some dodgy info on a leftist blog will make all right in the world (a notion it shares with both "Green Zone" and "The Green Hornet"). Well, with all due respect to Mr. Stone's faith in crusading journalism, the real point is that, a) justice was not served in the recent Wall St. scandals, and b) one need look no further than WikiLeaks to see that damning information can surface and sink again while leaving barely a trace.

What is needed here is not a pie-in-the-sky feel-good ending, but the sort of thing that will send people into the streets. Stone would have done well to have channeled some of the gob-smacked outrage of journalist Matt Taibbi (author of the must-read "Griftopia"). A missed opportunity, for sure, but that may be emblematic of the Obama era.

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