Film >Zero-sum game
There is a moment in director Oliver Stone’s 1987 yuppie manifesto Wall Street, where the film comes to a painful stop. It’s somewhere in between stars Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen’s exhilarating, fast-talking exchanges about the false perception of money as a solid asset and the prophetic musings on the financial market’s lack of creating anything of real substance. Sheen walks onto the terrace of his newly luxurious condo, a beautiful blonde asleep in his bed. He looks at the moon and says, “Who am I?” It’s a cringe-worthy moment so utterly on-the-nose and mechanically see-through that it threatens to ruin everything that came before or will come after it. As I recall, one of the very next scenes was Douglas’ epic “Greed is good” monologue, and the “Who am I?” debacle is quickly, thankfully forgotten.
Stone’s sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, lives in that “Who am I?” moment. It’s nothing more than a series of extended HuffPo rants strung together by alternately sappy and preachy plot points that could have been as foretelling as the original film if it had come two years earlier, before Michael Lewis’ outstanding breakdown of the financial crisis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine or before Paul Krugman won a Nobel Prize for practically predicting the meltdown.
Money Never Sleeps takes place in 2008, just before the October market crash. Douglas’ devilish capitalist icon, Gordon Gekko, having spent eight years in prison following some takedown that occurred in between the two films, is now an author and talking-head, warning of the coming crisis and kvetching like a Jewish mother over his lack of contact with his “leftie blogger” daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Winnie is engaged to Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a Wall Street wunderkind interested in green technology – only for the money, not idealism, mind you – and an expert crotch-rocket rider. He’s just been given his first million-dollar bonus check from his mentor, Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella), and before he can even cash the thing, Zabel’s investment firm goes the way of Lehman Brothers and Zabel kills himself.
Stone stuffs so many act breaks upfront that it’s difficult to digest: Gekko whispers a culprit for Zabel’s death and the firm’s collapse in Moore’s ear, claiming fellow investor (Josh Brolin) spread false rumors. Moore retaliates by shorting Brolin’s stock – a move he must have learned by watching the original Wall Street – and Brolin responds by hiring Moore. That’s not even counting Moore’s desperate real-estate speculator mom (a wild-eyed Susan Sarandon), Winnie’s wariness of her fiance following in her father’s footsteps, as if that hasn’t already happened when we meet him, and Moore’s continued interest in one company’s laser-fusion ambitions. (The visual depiction of which must be one of the most ludicrous CG sequences in history.)
While Douglas and LaBeouf’s chemistry is nearly as compelling as that of the original Wall Street duo of Douglas and Sheen, the unintentionally hilarious dialogue by toxic screenwriter Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire) and co-writer Stephen Schiff often feels like a million tiny daggers piercing your gut. Whatever Stone thinks he’s doing with his bubble metaphors and split screens, his PowerPoint-presentation visualization and his tender familial Hallmark moments, he needs to, in Gekko’s own words, “split and re-evaluate.”