There are dozens of right answers to the question of what the most iconic film scene of the 80’s actually is, but a not-insignificant portion of the population would probably point to Gordon Gekko’s
infamous “greed is good” speech from Wall Street
. A pitch-perfect excoriation of the excesses of the Reagan and Thatcher decade, the film is rightly regarded as a minor classic, but even though Gekko is painted as a villainous insider trader, there’s a satanically slick kind of truth in his short monologue on the purifying capabilities of self-interest that (almost) makes him a sympathetic character, if only for a moment.
Ironically enough, Gekko and his words became something of an inspiration to the very people his character was intended to mock (e.g. the chop shop employees
in Boiler Room
), many of whom no doubt wound up involving themselves in the sub-prime scandals that wound up causing one of the worst financial crises of the last century. With domestic indignation at the robber barons of Wall Street at a fever pitch, the time obviously must’ve seemed ripe for a sequel to the original j’accuse
; as such, here we are 23 years later with Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
, a sharp but frustratingly aimless meditation on the timeless battle between greed and honesty.
Set in 2008, shortly before the financial meltdown that we’ve all come to be familiar with, Money Never Sleeps
mostly concentrates on the travails of young Jake Moore ( Shia LaBeouf
), an earnest trader who pushes his company into investing in a fusion-power technology, less out of a desire for wealth than a burning certitude that the relatively green technology will wind up replacing oil and coal-based energy sources in the 21st Century. After behind-the-scenes machinations by one Bretton James ( Josh Brolin
) wind up causing the company to be sold off, Moore insinuates himself into James’ good graces with the vengeful intent to cause as much damage as possible to his energy company.
He’s aided in this pursuit by none other than Gekko, freed from prison eight years earlier, who’s restyled himself as a Wall Street commentator with a hit book entitled “Is Greed Good?”; Moore happens to be dating Gekko’s daughter Winnie ( Carey Mulligan
), whom Jack keeps in the dark about their arrangement. Winnie is, for better or worse, a spectator to the men’s game here, a sympathetic character seemingly thrown into the film to prod the plot forward in various ways when it seems to be running out of juice. Mulligan is excellent, as always, with a preternatural ability to weep on command; her few scenes with Douglas are among the film’s best. Douglas, for his part, slips back into the role of Gekko with ease; you get the sense that he relished the opportunity to revisit one of his most iconic roles, and he exudes a kind of self-satisfied comfort that makes you like him even when he’s doing incredibly shitty things.
The film’s lengthy second act is legitimately thrilling, as the trio of men circle each other like junkyard dogs, each quietly waiting for their moment to fuck the others without getting fucked in return. Even LeBeouf is effective here as Jake; the script takes advantage of the somewhat manic energy he can sometimes bring to the table, even if he is generally outshined by his castmates. Brolin, for his part, is perfect as the slimy, anything-goes-if-it-makes-me-money Bretton, even if he rarely gets any meaty lines to chew on and is reduced to theatrical histrionics late in the film.
Speaking of the script, though, it’s got to be said that this feels a bit like Wall Street Lite
; there’s an awkward attempt at homage early on as Gekko gives a speech to a crowd of economics students that ends up being a bit of a repudiation of the ideas that he promulgated in the first film. It’s understandable why he would backtrack--it’s part of the image that he’s selling--but if you’re going to call back to one of the most famous movie speeches of the last couple of decades, you’d better bring your A game; writers Allan Loeb
and Stephen Schiff
regretfully pull their punches. As far as quotable lines go, “the mother of all evil is speculation” just doesn’t give quite the same jolt as “greed is good” does. To make matters worse, the audience laughs at almost every line that Gekko delivers; if you’re a scriptwriter and you feel like you have to shore up the weakness of a big moment by adding what might as well be a laugh track, then...well, just don’t.
That scene is at least over relatively quickly; I wish I could say the same about the film’s incredibly lengthy denouement. The third act revolves around Jake doing one of the dumbest things you’ll ever see a supposedly smart character do; it also leans on Winnie as a plot engine in two different ways, both of which are a bit too convenient to be believable. This is a film that could’ve benefited from a total rewrite of its last half-hour, which is a real shame; all of the energy and drive of the second act is mostly wasted as the audience continues to wait for an ending that takes far too long to arrive.
Oliver Stone, for his part (who doesn’t share a writing credit here, although he did on the first film), deserves a lot of credit for the feeling of the film’s middle section. There are some wonderfully energetic camera movements, especially when Stone indulges himself and dips into the budget for extras: if there’s a meeting where three people are talking, there’ll be thirty people scattered around the table; a dinner party might as well have 200 guests instead of 50. One of Stone’s more curious decisions, however, was to allow David Byrne
to contribute most of the film’s soundtrack. There’s probably some kind of point he’s attempting to make by having “Naive Melody (This Must Be The Place)” play over the credits, but outside of a play on Jake’s somewhat credulous nature, a poppy love song feels like the last thing that should be playing the movie out.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
is that it feels like it fails to fully engage with the reason the movie exists at all: the subprime mortgage scandal and the catastrophic effect it had on the world’s financial system are mentioned, briefly, but Stone seems reluctant to tie it into the film’s main storyline, instead focusing on the fusion energy scheme that Jake pushes forward and Bretton’s implication in short-selling a company that he later buys. Devious actions, indeed, but for a film that’s named Wall Street
, you expect a more trenchant examination of the actions of those who got us into this whole mess. There’s still a good movie to be found somewhere inside Money Never Sleeps
; it’s just too bad that there’s a pretty mediocre one mixed in as well.