Thursday, September 23, 2010

'Wall Street' sequel closes mixed

Michael Douglas and Shia LeBeouf tackle Wall Street.

America's favorite champion of greed is back. Freshly released from prison, Gordon Gekko is ready to use his status as a celebrity criminal to lecture the nation on how Wall Street ravaged the economy, pushing unsuspecting investors over a financial cliff. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps -- director Oliver Stone's follow-up to his 1987 hit -- plays variations on the kind of revenge themes that gave the first installment much of its punch and offers more than a few discourses on how we found ourselves on the brink of financial ruin.

Money Never Sleeps can be likened to a much-heralded initial public offering. The movie begins with high expectations and momentum, but ultimately suffers from a greed of its own: the desire to jam a ton of information and opinion into a story that sometimes loses itself in a tangle of financial maneuvers. And beyond all expectation and perhaps sense, Stone includes an epilogue that tries for (gasp!) a bit of happily-ever-after bliss.

Don't think I'm completely sour on Stone's effort. To begin with, Money Never Sleeps represents one of the few instances when a sequel makes sense. The audacious Gekko is past due for release from prison, and there hardly could be a better time for Stone to aim his cannons of rancor at Wall Street. In all, the idea of a Wall Street sequel seemed like a hanging curve ball, a fat pitch Stone could knock out of the park. I'd say, he's doubled off the left field wall.

The set-up is simple enough. Gekko, ably reprised by Douglas who won an Oscar for his work the first time around, is released from jail after having spent eight years on ice for insider trading. Not one to waste an experience, Gekko writes a best-selling book that goofs on the signature line from the last movie: It's called Is Greed Good? Gekko's ideally positioned to reveal the ways in which Wall Street sold out the country for fun and profit. Gekko, after all, invented the game. The book lands Gekko on the lecture circuit.

But Gekko isn't entirely happy being a prophet at the gates of the crumbling wall of capitalism. He seems to understand that he's hurt others, notably his family. Saddened by the death of a son (from a drug overdose), a remorseful Gekko would like to reconcile with his daughter (Carey Mulligan). Disgusted with her father, Mulligan's Winnie runs a left-leaning Web site. She's also engaged to a "hungry" young investment banker (the always avid Shia LeBeouf.) She hasn't spoken to her father in years.

LeBeouf's Jake Moore - really the movie's main character - embarks on his own vengeful ploy when he realizes that his Wall Street mentor (Frank Langella) has been victimized by the corrupt manipulations of another tycoon, the silky smooth Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Jake meets Gekko at a speaking engagement, and asks for advice. Gekko agrees to play the role of revenge consultant on condition that Jake brokers a meeting between father and daughter. For her part, Winnie has no idea that Jake has been in touch with her father.

That's enough about plot to give you an idea about where the story is headed - or maybe not. The script by Alan Loeb and Stephen Schiff expands its portfolio to include a green energy company that badly needs an infusion of capital, Swiss banks that still know how to hide money, an aging power broker (Eli Wallach) who may be cagier than we think. All this and bailouts, too.

But you know what? The real fun of Stone's movie - and it does have some kick -- involves precisely the things the director may be attempting to condemn. Brolin, in another fine performance, plays a character who's interesting only because he's rich and powerful and has a well-upholstered lifestyle.

And the movie is at its engaging best when the rich are seen flaunting their wealth, power and cunning. A charity ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art drips with alluring opulence. The infighting at a Federal Reserve meeting creates the illusion that we're experiencing an inside look at how the power structure works.

Moreover, Jake's energy has an infectious quality. He may be young, but he's living high on the hog in a fancy Manhattan apartment. LeBeouf conveys the giddy sense of confidence that can come from being certain about one's ability to make big money, something I've observed in others but never experienced personally.

But there's a liability in focusing on Jake's adrenalin-fueled ambition. The movie invests too much of its dramatic capital in LeBeouf's character, a young man who's not the equal of the character Charlie Sheen played in the original. And the relationship between LeBeouf and Mulligan falls short of terrific. It's as much plot contrivance as love affair.

The movie also indulges in a myth, a bit of nostalgia for capitalism past. Time was - or so we're led to believe - when Wall Street was different. Langella's Louis Sabel comes on like a cut-rate version of an Arthur Miller character, a Wall Street trader who longs for the days when companies had substance. Remember when we used to make things? Remember when we didn't accumulate mountains of debt just to stay afloat?

Not content to take shots at Wall Street excess, Stone also drags in murky real-estate practices. Susan Sarandon plays Jake's mother, a Realtor who has to borrow money from her hotshot son in order to hold onto properties that have become increasingly difficult to unload. Chewing on a New York accent thick enough to choke a house cat, Sarandon is fun to watch.

I've previously admired Mulligan's work. Here, though, her most impressive feat involves the way that Winnie cries. On a couple of occasions, a lone tear trickles down Winnie's rounded cheek. Very touching.

I decided to let those solitary tears stand for my feelings at the end of a movie. Money Never Sleeps mostly held my interest, but it lacks the emotional and intellectual that the subject demands. In a key line that I reveal here only because it found its way into the trailer, Gekko instructs Jake about the harsh way of things: "It's not about the money. It's about the game," says Gekko.

In the context of the character, the line makes sense, but try telling that to the people who suffered most from the Wall Street collapse, those with vanquished IRAs, devastated pension funds or lack of gainful employment. For all its pontificating, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps works better as glossy escapism than as a biting social critique.

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