Greed is very, very good (again)
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 24, 2010
Michael Douglas makes a triumphant return to form as one of American cinema's great villains in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," the 23-years-later sequel to the movie that captured the go-go '80s.
In its own giddy, glib way, "Money Never Sleeps" evinces just as strong a hold on its times, when terms like "subprime" and "credit default swaps" -- which would have been virtually meaningless two decades ago -- are the lingua franca of the financial realm. The crimes that Gekko went to jail for in Oliver Stone's original film now seem like child's play compared with the shady deals his spiritual heirs have been confecting during his years in prison. Now that he has been released, during a very funny scene in which he reclaims a mobile phone the size of a shoebox, Gekko has renounced his past life of avarice and (what else?) published a book. It's called "Is Greed Good?," a clever turnabout on his most famous line from the first "Wall Street."
That's just one of many in-jokes that Stone lands throughout his sequel, which often exceeds its predecessor in sheer verve and visual style. Using an ingeniously layered visual design, split screens and sinuous mobile cameras that move through scenes like the human sharks who inhabit them, Stone here proves that he's still a director of bold muscularity. If some of his references hit too squarely on the nose -- the shot of a child's soap bubble standing in for the metaphoric financial version, for example, or the vaguely fascist corporate insignia of a malign CEO played by Josh Brolin -- Stone has a knack for pacing, detail and atmosphere that manages to feel authentic and fancifully allegorical at the same time.
In large part, much of that entertainment value derives from Douglas, who tucks into Gekko with gleeful relish, his physical gusto made all the more gratifying given the unwelcome recent news that the actor is fighting throat cancer. His famous hair now gray and less slick, his suits dressed down but still bespoke, Gekko presents the perfect antihero, a deliciously amoral bad guy on a quest for redemption (or maybe just a piece of the new action). The ally he has chosen for the journey is a young entrepreneur named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who just happens to be engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Disgusted with her father, Winnie writes for an investigative blog, while Jake invests in alternative energy technology and speaks fluent Mandarin.
In other words, Jake and Winnie personify the future that Gekko, who speaks witheringly of those crazy kids with their derivatives, either can't or won't grasp -- or maybe he's just too busy seeing around corners to beat them at their own game. The wily suspense of "Money Never Sleeps" lies in how deep Gekko's reptilian instincts go, a question plumbed in the course of a peripatetic tour through New York's most decadently gilded precincts, with a stop along the way at the Federal Reserve.
"Money Never Sleeps" may belong to Douglas's Gekko, but Mulligan and LaBeouf provide attractive, believable foils to his slippery sleights of hand; veterans Frank Langella and Eli Wallach, in roles reminiscent of Hal Holbrook's in the original, offer words of bygone wisdom echoed by the image of a buffalo seen in one aging character's office.
Set to music by David Byrne, Brian Eno and Craig Armstrong, "Money Never Sleeps" possesses the lift, acceleration and speed of the very bubble it seeks to puncture. Stone has managed to wring unlikely entertainment value from what we now know was the longest recession since World War II. With style, wry humor and a healthy dose of cautionary polemic, he's made some of our most troubling recent history great fun to watch.
Contains brief strong profanity and thematic elements.