Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Sep 26, 2010 1:28 pm 
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Money naps occasionally

Oliver Stone's Wall Street sequel is fun, lively, and glitzy looking. But what's it trying to do? Though the original's main character, the yellow-suspendered, cigar-puffing "greed is good" capitalist Gordon Gekko -- a role that got Michael Douglas an Oscar-- was the epitome of the dangerous Eighties ├╝ber-yuppie, now he's turned into something more "sympathetic." Not a good idea. Why mess with a villain? Gekko's meanness and lust for the win, his reptilian durability, were the point of the original film. He was scary, he was obscene, he was a troublingly ambiguous cautionary tale. He became a role model because viewers didn't care what Stone was up to, they wanted to live like that.

Now, 23 years later, Gekko is given a surprising new role: whistle-blower. He gets out of Sing Sing (where nobody awaits him at the gate), scrambles back on his feet, and in 2008 writes a book, Is Greed Good? all about credit default swaps and other toxic assets and how the system is feeding on itself and heading for a fall. In other words, while he began life as a creator of the financial crisis, he now warns against it.

It's a bad idea to spoil a villain, and to begin a story with its protagonist's repentance can lead nowhere. Of course the plot is leading to the financial crisis: that's the hook that got this movie produced. It dramatizes the early days when the Fed rescued banks to keep the whole system from going down, and the bubble burst anyway.

With a typical lack of subtlety, Stone has several scenes of kids blowing bubbles, and he lectures us on Dutch Tulipmania. Then, never delving deep into the psychology, he tries to orchestrate a symphony of Wall Street events, interwoven with righteous sabotage of a Boesky-Milligan type called Bretton James (Josh Brolin) by Jake Moore, a young ambitious kid from nowhere (Shia LeBeouf, replacing Charlie Sheen), who simultaneously attempts to reconcile Gekko and his estranged daughter Winnie (a weepy, yet curiously uninvolved Carey Mulligan) -- who, a bit too conveniently, happens to be his fiancee.

Gekklo proves to be a rotter -- again -- and Winnie, who runs a Hollywood-posh liberal website, proves hard to convince. Jake unwittingly latches onto Gekko after his firm's collapse leads his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) to throw himself in front of a subway train. Gekko cons Jake into getting him $100 million (just an opening chip in these games) and absconds to London, where he starts a company and parlays the money into over a billion.

Interestingly, Michael Douglas played (very well) a similar but more provincial figure -- a crooked car dealer -- earlier this year in the film Solitary Man, which also has Susan Sarandon in it, as a former wife (here, she's Jake's mom). In Solitary Man, Douglas' character has more depth and sympathy because the screenplay focuses on him and his attempt to restore himself after release from prison. Money Never Sleeps never considers the possibility that Gekko might have trouble attracting investors after eight years in jail, an issue that's central for the protagonist of the more realistic Solitary Man. Some of the financial stuff in the new movie is certainly true, though personal consequences of the great recession are never shown. The personal stuff that is shown is contrived.

What Stone & Co. have done pretty successfully is stage a series of striking set pieces. All one remembers of parts of the 1987 original is what people wear and the art work on the walls. Here it may be all one remembers, period. Money Never Sleeps is notable for the flashy lofts; Bretton James and Jake racing twin Ducatis; James after he's been ruined trashing a huge Goya; Gekko hawking his book in a big hall to an awestruck crowd, and later being fitted for bespoke London suits; New York looking like a million dollars, and a Manhattan fund raiser with jukebox lights and a roving camera that comes up close on the super-rich ladies' spectacular earrings. There are all those cameos, including several by Stone and Eli Wallach, still kicking. And the voices of David Byrne and Brian Eno singing duets appealingly evoke the Eighties of the first film. There's even a scene at the end that reminded me of Jonathan Demme in the same decade, when he was so great.

Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff worked with Stone himself and his previous collaborator Stanley Weiser on the script, not so successfully. Too much is going on in this muddled screenplay, which in personal scenes is schematic and tone-deaf, and the stuff about the toxic assets and the Fed's rescues of big banks favors melodrama over clarity. Money Never Sleeps shows a mainstream movie doesn't have to be smart -- as David Fincher's The Social Network, with Aaron Sorkin's razor-sharp writing, emphatically is. In a story that needed focus and clarity, Stone shows no restraint. He plays around much too much with split screen images, animations, and other gimmicks. But the straight cinematography throughout by Rodrigo Prieto is continual juicy fun, especially when he is making Manhattan look like a chocolate cake studded with precious stones. And though LeBeouf doesn't seem smart enough to be a trader and delivers his lines with a fast Jersey slur, his energy is more convincing than Charlie Sheen's self-righteousness, as Tom Cruise's would have been (Cruise was the original choice for Sheen's role). This is a watchable film; it's just not one of the year's best. At least it's not thrown together quite so hastily and thoughtlessly as Stone's earlier effort this year, his biased account of new left leaders in South America, South of the Border. This is a team effort with some good collaborators, and for all the weaknesses, that pays off.

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