Whatever one thinks of Oliver Stone’s sledgehammer rhetoric, it’s hard to deny that Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko was one of the most slimily charismatic villains of the Reagan era. The film itself may have been largely melodramatic piffle, an indictment of corporate malfeasance weighed down by its father-son conflagration. Yet Michael Douglas’s impeccable impersonation of an Ivan Boesky-like alpha male made Stone’s clunky social-problem film bearable. Douglas, often a rather stolid actor, possessed the savvy to come near the brink of self-parody without falling over the edge.
The absence of arcane financial jargon notwithstanding, one of the only real virtues of Money Never Sleeps is its relentless topicality.
At the Cannes press conference for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (which screened out of competition at this year’s festival), the lumbering if intermittently amusing sequel to the 1987 film, Douglas, like Stone himself in countless interviews over the years, expressed amazement that Gekko’s catchphrase—“greed is good”—became a mantra for the current generation of financial tyros, implacable Republicans who otherwise have little fondness for the director and his star’s left-liberal politics. The problem, of course, resided with the fact that Gekko’s malicious, if admittedly over-the-top dynamism proved much more invigorating than the original film’s wan excuse for a hero, a saintly union leader named Carl Fox (Martin Sheen) perturbed by the antics of his renegade hotshot son (played by Sheen fils himself, Charlie).
Perhaps all too aware of these paradoxes, Stone makes an earnest attempt to imbue all of the characters in the sequel with at least a nominal amount of moral ambiguity. When presented at the press conference with the claim that Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gekko’s daughter and the girlfriend of Jake Moore, (Shia LaBeouf) Money Never Sleeps’ conflicted protagonist, was the film’s “moral center,” he denied that Mulligan’s ingénue was without her flaws. Invoking Jean Renoir’s famous dictum—“everyone has their reasons”—he expressed a palpable distaste for one-dimensional heroes and villains.
Unfortunately, these noble intentions are thwarted by the impossibility of shoehorning believable character development into a film that also attempts to explain the roots of the 2008 crash and our current economic debacle within the framework of Hollywood “product” suitable for a mass audience. A number of recent documentaries, such as Leslie Cockburn’s American Casino and Michael Moore’s Capitalism—A Love Story (made by a filmmaker whose populist zeal is as fervent, and often as self-contradictory, as Stone’s), have tackled the fallout of the housing crisis and its attendant financial chicanery with varying degrees of success. Still, despite the fact that the consequences of the Great Recession hit home for nearly every American, it is perhaps understandable that most people’s eyes glaze over at the mention of “complex derivatives” and “credit default swaps.”
The absence of arcane financial jargon notwithstanding, one of the only real virtues of Money Never Sleeps is its relentless topicality. Furiously schematic, the sequel, while every bit as much a morality tale-cum-soap opera as the original film, is even more palpably “torn from today’s headlines.” The film opens with Gekko’s release from jail after a long stint for insider trading. Slightly chastened and noticeably scruffier, his residual cockiness is tempered by awareness that his past transgressions are tepid indeed compared to the skullduggery of a new generation of investment bankers. In one of the film’s best scenes, Gekko hawks his memoir — Is Greed Good?—to an audience of adoring business students by declaring that greed is not only now good, “it is also legal,” and concluding that leveraged debt is the “dollar on steroids.”
Perhaps predictably, Gekko’s cynical common sense is outstripped by a swath of melodramatic incidents in which each character is mechanically associated with a different aspect of the financial landscape. The demise of Bear Stearns, the firm the government did not deem important enough to save, receives a fictional gloss in the rapport between young Jake and Louis Zabel (played with avuncular weariness by Frank Langella), the head of Keller Zabel Investments. A mentor and father figure to the upwardly mobile and essentially fatherless Jake, whose own dad capitulated to an early death, Zabel’s career, and the fate of his bank, is in turn sabotaged by Bretton James (Josh Brolin), an amoral partner at Churchill Schwartz, a transparent slap at Goldman Sachs.
The most prescient aspect of a film scripted months before the recent revelations concerning Goldman Sachs is a plot line involving Bretton’s success (his name might be an unfathomable allusion to the Bretton Woods conference of 1944 that established the International Monetary Fund) at lining his own pockets while making investments that contravene the interests of his clients. Of course, with advisers on the film of the likes of George Soros and Nouriel Roubini, the NYU professor who predicted the puncturing of the housing bubble that precipitated the 2008 financial tsunami, it is not particularly surprising that telltale financial minutiae found its way into the film’s narrative. Despite Stone’s finesse for remaining au courant, it’s disconcerting to report that Bretton James is a much more anemic villain than Gordon Gekko. This is not the fault of Brolin, a talented actor who even managed to portray George W. Bush with empathetic flair in Stone’s W. But it’s a thankless task to find a nuanced approach to embodying a thoroughly hollow character. All Stone and his screenwriters can do to illuminate James’ unstoppable megalomania is to link him visually with some exceptionally grotesque Goya paintings that are on prominent display in the honcho’s palatial digs.
It’s not the lack of subtlety that is most deplorable in Money Never Sleeps—only a fool would expect subtlety from an Oliver Stone venture. The problem is that narrative coherence is constantly sacrificed to make room for a supposedly anti-Establishment director’s obsession with the preservation of the family unit. This is, after all, a film in which a compressed account of the American economic “apocalypse” is interrupted by Winnie’s breathless announcement to Jake that she’s pregnant. The audience is then implicitly charged with judging which event is more earth-shattering. It is in fact rather baffling why Stone and his screenwriters insist that Winnie, the recalcitrant daughter who rebels by writing crusading anti-capitalist articles for a liberal website called Frozen Truth, must be reconciled with her errant father. All told, it would be more appropriate, and infinitely more entertaining, if she tried to bomb the offices of Churchill Schwartz.
Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.