Home > Film > Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Sometimes I think it’s just as important to understand why a film fails as why it succeeds. This assumes, of course, that people are prepared to learn from their mistakes. In this case, it’s somewhat unlikely the director would ever admit to any errors of judgement. He has “Hollywood power” so need not bow his head unless his latest effort makes so little money that no-one will back another venture by him. So here I am going up against Oliver Stone — only the winner of three Oscars and numerous other awards. Fortunately, my mother christened me David, so it’s OK for me to go up against big guys.

It’s a cool idea to make a sequel, particularly when the original Wall Street won an Oscar and other awards. Ignoring the time delay (1987 to 2010) we can still call on Michael Douglas, even coax a cameo out of Charlie Sheen, so this project has big star-drawing power plus a title that resonates with film fans and engages current reality. Overall, this equals commercial success. I am coming to it late but, as of today, we are into a profit with around $80 million already banked around the world. Stone has delivered. Hollywood is no doubt saddened the take has not been faster, but will accept a profit in today’s recession-affected market. Except, this is a story of what might have been — of profits never realised. If only Stone had made a good film, he would have enhanced his own reputation and pleased his backers (more).

Let’s start with a few thoughts about what made the original so great. It’s a tightly focused story about a young man who, depending on your point of view, is either seduced and betrayed by the dispassionately greedy Gordon Gekko or, like the young Icarus, is undone by his own ambition as he flies too close to the sun of his own greed. What holds the narrative together is the deal to take over the airline and the relationship between real-life father and son Charlie and Martin Sheen. Indeed, it’s the accessibility of the deal and the intensity of the parental relationship on display that gave the early film its edge. As viewers, we want the son to have a chance of redemption as the reality of the Faustian deal becomes obvious.

In the sequel, Gekko is even less central to the primary narrative thrust than in the original. Here we focus on the relationship between Gekko’s daughter and a young trader played by an uninspiring Shia LaBeouf. Frankly, I never found him sufficiently hungry to be a convincing success in the predatory world of Wall Street. He’s not a hard-selling go-getter. He has principles and dreams. When motivated, he makes the right moves but, in a real fight, there’s little passion on show. When he does look for revenge, it’s always through a cowardly back door and not by direct assault. I suppose that’s why Gekko’s daughter can love this man despite the role model of her father’s obsessional behaviour, i.e. at the end of the day LaBeouf is not playing a real dealer like her father.

This nicely captures the more pervasive problem with the film which starts by intercutting a documentary-like pan across the face of buildings with Gekko’s release from jail. The mirrored glass of the office blocks are the supremely indifferent bastions of wealth, and Gekko is a fallen Titan. Note the symbolism of the painting destroyed at the end of the film. It shows the Titan Saturn eating his child. At one level, the banker shows no sense of the intrinsic worth of the painting. He is prepared to destroy it as would a petulant child. More generally, the subject matter of the painting is a metaphor for Wall Street eating one of its favoured sons to avoid more serious damage. In other words, the film is all about symbols rather than intent on telling a real story. If Stone was really investing in a strong narrative, he would set up the fall of Louis Zabel. As it stands, we are shown a very depressed man, never able to offer any kind of clear explanation of his banks’s difficulties and left with no honourable course except to throw himself under a train. Well, that’s not the way to make us care about the man and, more importantly to show us why someone like LaBeouf would have been mentored and protected by this ageing banker. Why is there nothing to show the rumours rumbling round the market, why are there no investigations into the share dealings, why does the man as victim not seem interested in defending himself? Apart from one angry word or two aimed at Bretton James, he has loser written all over him. Then Wall Street and the Feds decide not to bail out Zabel’s bank and everyone mutters darkly about the looming crisis of the collateralised mortgages. But all this is without any sense of drama. We are expected to watch and accept this view of capitalism at work. Well this may be a rerun of history but it sure ain’t riveting film-making. The only bright spark in all this is the eccentric beady eyes of Eli Wallach who is always watchable, even when asked to make silly bird noises.

Then our ethically challenged LaBeouf sets out to get revenge against Bretton James, briefly works for him, then realizes he finds the man repulsive, so quits. From this description, you can see the narrative is just drifting. There’s no real hook, no big deal we can get our teeth into and watch Wall Street at its best or worse. The only deal we are supposed to care about is funding for a blue-sky fusion project. Like that’s ever going to get massive support from a market about to go into a recession.

Interspersed is the manoeuvering between Gekko and his daughter, mediated by LaBeouf. Poor Carey Mulligan has a thankless task in trying to make this woman even remotely believable. She was supposedly a devoted daughter until her brother committed suicide while her daddy was vacationing in jail. Then she was all bitter, blaming daddy for not being there when her bother needed him. Having shed some tears, they are reconciled. It’s not at all heart-warming. Despite Michael Douglas playing Gekko with great flair, there’s nothing he can do to rescue the leaden dialogue or the pedestrian delivery by Ms Mulligan.

In short, the film lacks any kind of unifying theme. It could have been about Gekko — despite his throat cancer, Michael Douglas is wonderful when on screen — but he’s not allowed any real chance to shine. It could have been about one key deal which is properly set up and holds our interest through the machinations of all involved. But we are only offered a pallid view of Wall Street’s collapse as the mortgage tsunami washes everyone away (except Eli Wallach whose bird noises obviously work a magic hoodoo). Playing Bretton James, the only character vaguely amounting to a villain, we find a wooden Josh Brolin, so there’s nothing there to hold our interest. Thus, running over two hours, it feels boringly without direction or point — except to make money, of course. That’s how directors work. Always give the sucker fans what you tell them they want to see.

  1. Dan
    October 25, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    I wouldn’t say the movie is bad, it’s just not well explained. The acting of labouf is unconvincing. I don’t believe he is a wall street trader with ambitions. The acting is generally a routine. They cry one minute about the suicide of lou, and then the next it’s like completely nothing happened. It doesn’t bother them. It’s not clear why is he revenging, and he doesn’t look like he is angry at bretton at all. It also doesn’t make sense to just insult breton and walk away if one wants a revenge. And his attachment to this laser thing project is not clear, it looks more like a sales pitch than that he believes in it. Why does he care? It’s like he just wants to con his wife into a deal she doesn’t understand, but it’s not fair to push your presumably loved and only woman into a deal she doesn’t understand, even if you believe in it, even if she wants to get rid of money. It just looks very strange and not clear and unconvincing.

  2. October 26, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    I find your first sentence intriguing. Surely a movie that does not explain itself well is by definition bad. For all that, your last sentence captures my view of the film exactly.

    Thanks for contributing

    David

  1. October 16, 2010 at 5:21 pm

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