Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

**

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is an awkward beast - UK audiences are getting it on a Wednesday for a five-day Opening weekend, there's a timeliness to its story of greed and personal irresponsibility and high finance, and there are so many Oscar winners involved it would seem, to borrow a phrase, "too big to fail". It isn't.

Written by Allan Loeb (who also wrote Jennifer Aniston insemination fraud 'comedy' The Switch) and Stephen Schiff (who penned the '97 version of Lolita), it's got a "characters" credit for Stone himself and also for his occasional collaborator Stanley Weiser. It also has a story credit for Bryan Burrough, who wrote the book Barbarians At The Gate which became the really very good HBO TV movie. That's a lot of oars for a film that seems to lack any direction - not that Mr. Stone hasn't put the effort in, appearing on screen himself no fewer than three times. Some have likened it to Hitchcock, but the lines are blurrier here - he might even be himself.


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In fact, lots of people are themselves. Jocelyne Wildenstein appears, but she's probably the only recognisable face. There are plenty of bankers, and even a Charlie Sheen. He reprises the role of Bud Fox, but his powdered haggard countenance and seemingly animate hair suggest that he has become the "half-man" of the sitcom. His sole scene is a conversation with Michael Douglas, and it's pretty clear who the years have been kinder to.

As Gekko, Douglas won an Oscar in the first Wall Street, and it was a bravura performance. The 'greed is good' speech helped define an era, and its (oft forgotten) evolutionary component informs Money Never Sleeps. Unfortunately, as a doom-sayer Gekko works less well. A speech given to promote his book inflames the audience on the screen, but it's rambling, unfocused, even dull. It's got a single swear word, not enough to trouble the bizarre rating of 12A, and even some things that pass for jokes. It isn't very good, but it is better than Shia LaBoeuf's voiceover.

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There's some talk about bubbles, and beyond Tulipmania and actual bubbles blown by children the example given is the Cambrian explosion, the effervescence of phyla that gives us the massive diversification of modern life. The notion that something better might evolve from trauma is mentioned, but not repeatedly. The film is too busy labouring themes, calling back to other moments, splitting screens to show men talking at urinals, portraying both sides of a conversation, showing us Dunkin' Donuts wrappers and CGI demo reels for laser-based nuclear fusion.

Shia plays Jake Moore, an idealistic trader who likes things, and money, and has a pet project in said nuclear fusion. The reactor doesn't bubble like the one in Chain Reaction, which is a shame, but it is tended by the familiar face of Austin Pendleton. Jake's patronage seems to be all that's keeping the facility afloat, and his efforts to keep it running form one of the spines of the film.

There's also his romance with Winnie Gekko, Carey Mulligan turning in a much more subtle performance than this film deserves. There's her concerns about other people's concern about money, messy attempts at reconciliation from her father, her work at a 'right on' news blog, but she's almost a plot device.

It's a weakness throughout - there are loads of characters, tonnes of things going on, and little to no reason to invest. As a whistling elder statesman of the stock-broking world, Eli Wallach has a glint in his eyes, but there seems to be a suggestion that's he's a centenarian. As Jake's mentor, Frank Langella is his usual excellent self; a moment in the park seems to recall the final confrontation in the original before being hidden by a computer generated bubble. Josh Brolin has a good turn as one of the villains; nemesis is perhaps too strong a word for a film full of unpleasant people committing financial atrocities upon one another, but it's close.

Brolin's character, Bretton James, is one of several links between Gekko and Jake, but he's the one with whom there's inexplicable motorcycle boasting, the one who owns an early sketch for Saturn Devouring His Children, the one with the helicopter that looks like Airwolf and a pair of Ducati motorcycles. Brolin's a good actor, maybe even a great one, but as with the rest of the cast it appears that the film has been left to them to carry. Even Susan Sarandon can't shoulder the task, no matter how well she acts around LaBoeuf.

There's too much going on, not enough focus. The setting is the economic collapse, but the mechanics of it are barely outlined. There are dates aplenty, the film taking place over almost a year, but despite the stresses nobody seems to age. Gekko seems reformed, but might not be. Winnie seems unwilling to forgive, but might not be. Jake seems to know the score, but might not be playing the same game as everyone else. It's not a bafflingly complex plot, it's just lumbering. Given the scale and scope and number of things it's trying to do, this film might actually have benefited from being a miniseries; Damages with Glenn Close has done impressive things. As it stands, at over two-hours, it feels long, but some of that's because of its clumsiness. Given more space its meanders would have become recitations, callbacks would have become motifs. With tighter focus, more drive, it could have cut laser sharp to what it seems to be trying to do. Straddling the middle ground, it falters.

There are things mentioned that are never returned to, that never seem properly referenced or used. The "number", the sum of money that would cause someone to walk away and settle down. Bubbles, tulips, restitution, payback, moral hazard, idealism, sky-line turned share-price line, on and on. The title of the movie is scarcely paraphrased in the dialogue, even the end credits get in on the act, massive coins serving to illustrate... something.

It's also worth mentioning that there's a scene where someone looks at the construction site on Ground Zero, as intrinsic a part of the modern New York film-making experience as a shot of the Empire State Building and characters occupying property that's outwith any rational expectation of their ability to pay for it, even when sums of millions are being bandied about. New York's still a beautiful city, but the shots start to feel indulgent rather than establishing, and then like padding, and she's too grand a dame to treat like an extra.

There's some technical impressiveness, a dizzying spinning elevating shot that's either CGI or a well-behaved robot helicopter, but a lot of gimmickry too. Split-screens, telephone become tele-vision, cuts to reaction shots, labourious spelling out, a lot of effort to tell rather than show. There are plotting oddities, a clear requirement to have villains who either express remorse or are punished, the presumably bullet-proof and boiler-plate contractual requirement that Shia LaBoeuf be on a motorcycle in any film he appears in. Even the soundtrack plays its part, the score over someone's breakfast almost immediately suggesting what actually does happen, rather than just foreshadowing.

What's sad, even infuriating, is that somewhere in this mess there's a good idea. There is plenty of talent here, some of it even on display, but it's hampered by a script that feels like the notes towards a story rather than something that's been drafted, or better re-drafted. It might be an exercise in emergent storytelling, but what sometimes washes in documentary just grates in fiction.

Platoon was hungry and angry, JFK was indulgent and angry, but despite the consequences of the credit crunch, WS:MNS is clubbable; even then more seal than the Garrick. It has moments of anger, of rage, but those are at and of characters, not systems. It has cameos that distract, enough David Byrne songs to fill a boxed-set, nostalgia for the Eighties and the mid-whatever-the-last-decade-was-called that's mawkish and trite and a legion of other flaws to boot. What it resembles more than anything are the so called "toxic assets" that brought about the economic catastrophe it depicts - over-extension, bad-borrowing, coasting on past credit, all bundled up into something derivative and sold under a new name.

Reviewed on: 06 Oct 2010
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Gordon Gecko is back, and this time he's predicting financial disaster.
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Director: Oliver Stone

Writer: Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff

Starring: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella

Year: 2010

Runtime: 133 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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