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Movie Review: ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’

September 24, 2010
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It’s been 23 years since the original Wall Street, and Michael Douglas reprises his role as corporate raider Gordon Gekko, freshly released from prison and ready to ascend right back to the top from which he fell. The role of Gordon’s protégé, played by Charlie Sheen in the first film, is filled by current hot-property Shia LeBeouf, the kid who’s been popping up in every big-budget production from Transformers to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’m not entirely sure why.

Here he plays Jacob Moore, a clean-air advocate and propriety trader for the crashing firm of Keller Zabel, headed by his mentor Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella). The reason Zabel’s headed down the tubes is because of a bogus rumor spread by hedge-fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who purportedly also had a hand in bringing Gekko down. James offers to buy the dying firm for a pittance, which leads Zabel to commit suicide and sets Jake out for revenge.

Jake’s also engaged to Winnie (Carey Mulligan), owner of a fledgling environmental blog and Gekko’s daughter, whose relationship with her father has been estranged ever since the suicide of her brother Rudy. At a signing for Gekko’s new book, Jake meets up with his soon-to-be father-in-law and two form a pact: Gekko will help Jake bring down James if Jake helps Gekko reconnect with his daughter. And all the while Jake struggles to get his pet project, a clean, fusion (I believe)-based energy company, off the ground.

Stephen Schiff’s (Lolita, True Crime) screenplay is replete with plot threads and trader talk that for the most part are handled well but frequently suffer from excess. All too often the jargon tends to overshadow key scenes, which can leave most viewers at a loss to understand what just happened. Likewise, the subplot with Jake’s realtor mother (Susan Sarandon) comes out of nowhere and stays on that path, never tying into the main story.

Actually there are three stories Stone’s trying to tell: a revenge tale, a family drama, and some fits of a romance. Of the three, the first is by far the most interesting, but, if one were to look at them separately, none of them seem to have much substance. LeBeouf and Mulligan’s story, for example, consists mostly of the two staring at each other, breaking up, a few more stares, then getting back together. Granted, Stone and Schiff do an admirable job coordinating them, but the focus shifts too often from Jake to Gekko to Zabel to Winnie to James and so on.

JFK featured the most comprehensive cast of characters of any Stone film, but he was wise enough to ground it with Costner’s Jim Garrison. Here the bulk of the film is divided between Douglas and LeBeouf, who’s character Jake is not particularly compelling despite all the conflict surrounding him—and that includes struggling to figure out whether Gekko has actually reformed. But at least he has time for a gratuitous motorcycle race with Brolin.

Douglas, however, is reliable as always and still has the fire to make Gekko a compulsively watchable (though somewhat reformed) character. Brolin likewise does well with the more-Gekko-than-Gekko role but the character nevertheless comes off as almost cartoonishly evil, especially in his scenes with the solemn Jake.

But, despite it all and the film’s two-hour-and-some-change running time, I never found myself wondering when it would be over. Stone’s camerawork is mesmerizing, whether it’s effortlessly following a character or juxtaposing the New York skyline with a stock graph, and the appearance of Gekko always jolted my interest. As a whole, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps may not have much to it, but it’s no sleeper.

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