FILM REVIEW Is greed still good?

Stone returns with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

3422 wallstreet2
Gekko (Michael Douglas) tests his new protege Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) in this sequel to the 1987 film Wall Street.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Directed by Oliver Stone

Starring Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Carey Mulligan

PG-13, Now Playing

Wall Street. The two word phrase has been the bane of Main Street for the last two years. We have vilified bankers due to the likes of Bernie Madoff, Citi’s ex-execs and in general shunned and publicly denigrated those who have been tainted with the four word acronym TARP. Well, unfortunately, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps does nothing to dispel the negative public sentiments associated with the Street. The sequel to the famed 1987 film about greed and deception, it has all the bells and whistles but ultimately falls short of its full potential. The platform was set to address the recent financial calamity and really delve beyond the surface greed but ultimately, shies away from the ugly truths behind the downfall.

For some bizarre reason, working in finance, especially on the famed street of New York has become mystically glamorized. Stakes are high, pressure is immense and the trading floor is comparable to a jungle with alpha males running around and hollering at each other, angrily grabbing each other by crisp shirt collars. At least, this is the side of Wall Street that media and pop culture has us believing. Throw in some inside trading, suspicious Federal Reserve authorities, Michael Douglas as a watered down and slightly more family-oriented Gordon Gekko, and you’ve got Wall Street 2.

Gordon Gekko (Douglas), is as coifed and velvet-tongued as before. Who else would honestly be able to carry off the cool calculated demeanor and ruthlessness than the original actor? For those who have not seen the original, Gordon Gekko may be fictional but is also one of the most iconic figures in finance. He likes money but is not in it for the money. To him, trading is a game, an elaborate game between people and of people. 8 years out of prison, he’s furious at being abandoned and caught for his previous crimes. The typical streak for vengeance is alighted. As the fates would have it, a young ambitious trader, Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) ends up entangled in Gekko’s schemes. Moore, a fan of Gekko and also the boyfriend of Gekko’s estranged daughter, becomes drawn deeper and deeper into a seemingly inextricable tangle.

Black and white is not so stark here — morality operates in mostly hues of grey with a few exceptions. Moore’s girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) is one of the few beacons of morality throughout. The owner of a political blog, she’s the granola, Brooklyn hipster chick who views her father and Wall Street with equal aversion. Unfortunately, Moore is about as in love with Wall Street as he is with her. Stone’s Wall Street is glamorous as it is dangerous, a temptress in a slinky dress and poisonous honeyed words. Those who play with her must be either dominant or become dominated.

Stone often transcends mere association between Wall Street and money — in his film, the two are synonymous and money itself was heavily personified. In one of Moore’s first meetings with Gekko, Gekko brusquely corrects Moore’s usage of the neutral pronoun in addressing money: “Money is a she. She sleeps in bed with you with one eye open. Next thing you know, she might be gone forever.”

The film is definitely a career turning point for both Shia LaBeouf and Mulligan. LaBeouf transformed from the smart-alecky, awkward Nickelodeon star to a promising young actor through this film. Despite his predilections of tackling another sequel to a classic, his performance was applaudable. His dedication to really understanding his character is highly admirable and evident as the finance jargon flows off his tongue. Supposedly, LaBeouf came into filming not knowing what a credit derivative was but at the end of filming, ended up taking the Series 7 exam and earned a broker license. He is able to capture the essence of a character whom you cannot help to like, with an endearing wholesomeness that always salvages him, despite what mistakes he may commit. Mulligan continues to impress and adds Wall Street 2 as the first major studio production to her resume. She avoids falling prey to being the wallflower, just the “girlfriend” to the fiery protagonist with a heartfelt performance and beautifully delivered lines.

The film captures its intended mood and energy through a great script, clever camera skills and an amazing cast. Was it enjoyable? Superbly so. Was it a vision for the eye? Absolutely. Financial firms were transformed into glass castles occupied by sharply cut suits and well-heeled professionals. Nifty camera angles intensified scenes, avoided the cheesiness of usual time series and transformed the mundane into the extraordinary.

Those who do not know what “hedging” is may find the film’s pace on the slower end and the film’s drama contrived. The film’s ultimate execution also leaves some to be desired — there is anticipation for particular conflicts to resolve, tensions to fizz, but many of those either end up falling flat or never achieving a satisfying closure. As mentioned before, the film also never quite fully tackles the heart of the recent financial crisis: risk. It lurks throughout the movie, nodded to casually but Stone fails to sink his teeth into risk head-on and translate it to the audience. Instead he squirms around various themes of greed, thrill of wealth and chase of the “game,” resulting in a formulaic drama thriller.

The financial crisis is no simple thing. I did not expect a blockbuster movie to be technically accurate, explain the basis of subprime mortgages. Stone does try his best with subtle references to the actual events (Moore’s mother is a casual real estate agent who winds up with burdened by debt) but fails to address the heart of the crisis. Furthermore, it adds no value to the name Wall Street beyond reiterating the existing stereotypes.