By Armond White
Not a zeitgeist filmmaker, Oliver Stone is, rather, our swiftest, most politically responsive filmmaker, and those attributes make Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps dazzling. It’s less a sequel to the 1987 stock-trading drama Wall Street (where Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko articulated the 1980s mantra “Greed is Good”) than it is a lightening-quick assessment of our current economic disaster. Rather than celebrating our confusion, Stone resurrects Gekko—here released from more than a decade in prison—and through him examines the still ruthless and corrupt financial system.
Nothing changes in the corridors of power, but since Wall Street, Stone has become a masterly filmmaker. No one edits plot, behavior and atmosphere more splendidly. In Money Never Sleeps, he links middle-aged Gekko’s comeback with hot-shot upstart Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf), who schemes to combat the double-crossing tycoon Bretton James (Josh Brolin) while proposing marriage to Gekko’s daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a crusading blogger. All the while Stone depicts Moral Hazard, the affluent, unquestioned license of our technocratic, celebritocracy. This is the glamorous, seething world that Steven Soderbergh couldn’t quite grasp in the hastily improvised yet shallow The Girlfriend Experience.
Stone has refined his creative energy and focuses on being a mythmaker of giants as in Alexander and his series of presidential epics JFK, Nixon and W. Few filmmakers have such a magisterial filmography or an impulse to understand contemporary American experience through its leaders. Not even Jonathan Franzen’s highly-lauded zeitgeist novel Freedom boasts more resonant cultural details than Stone. From the ironies of black and Latino ex-cons who have moved up on their terms to astonishing surveys of the post-9/11 New York skyline, Rodrigo Prieto’s camera virtually strokes the gleaming, phallic skyscrapers. In an instant-classic Museum of Natural History fundraiser sequence, Stone crafts a montage of assorted rich womens’ ostentatious earrings. This film pinpoints greed and luxe as no other movie ever has: America shimmers on the edge of apocalypse—like a bubble about to burst.
Each major character is defined in personal terms, yet it’s Money Never Sleeps’ sociological microscope that is most impressive. The details in Stone’s script (co-written with Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff) are rich until it succumbs to less fascinating, individual foibles. Replaying the mentor/protégé tension of Wall Street (probably for commercial safety) traps Stone into the LaBeouf-Mulligan subplot. He’s an aggressive twerp and she’s weepy; still, it makes no sense that Gekko’s daughter lacks all cunning. Instead, this should have simply been a battle of giants—those Wall Street bulls and bears who hold the government hostage in shadowy Federal Reserve meetings out of The Godfather. Frank Langella as Jake’s mourned father figure and Brolin’s elegantly venal Bretton James give compelling strength to these devious titans. Prieto’s camera looks into these men’s pores. The film peaks when Brolin’s Bretton says he simply aims for “More.” It’s a superb moment; you could linger in its precise perception of Moral Hazard. Money Never Sleeps isn’t an epic masterpiece like Stone’s World Trade Center, but it’s often amazingly vivid.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Directed by Oliver Stone
Runtime: 136 min
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