Oliver Stone isn’t a director known for nuance.
Mind you, he is a very skillful, proficient director. He just happens to make very straightforward films to prove his point (Greed is bad! War is bad! Murder is bad!), which is perfectly fine in some instances. There’s no denying the guy has brought us great stuff. But there is a certain point when the line is crossed and message becomes preachiness. Enter “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, Mr. Stone’s latest product.
It’s been 23 years since Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko last graced movie screens in “Wall Street”, playing the cinematic embodiment of all the excesses of the ’80s-era yuppie. By the end of that film he went to prison for insider trading, and “Money Never Sleeps” picks up when Gekko gets out of prison in 2008. Gekko’s main agenda is seemingly to re-establish his relationship with his estranged daughter Winnie (“An Education”s Carey Mulligan). But it’s Winnie’s boyfriend, young Wall Street trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) who reaches out to Gekko, searching for advice on how to get back at a head (Josh Brolin) of a firm that caused the death of his mentor.
Mind you, I’ve barely scraped the surface of all the various subplots going on in this film. Stone crams about six main characters into this film but never decides who he wants the emphasis to be on. He adds in subplots about clean energy and the housing market to take stabs at political relevance. But instead of resonating with current issues, it simply makes the movie feel like a big, hulking Frankenstein of little bits and pieces and messages that never come together into an compelling, cohesive, or really even interesting whole.
Come to think of it, most of the subplots in the film don’t resonate emotionally either. A perfect example is Susan Sarandon, playing Shia LaBeouf’s mother. Her character works in the housing market, and literally all Sarandon does is show up in two scenes, asking for money. Why is she here? Oliver Stone didn’t care about making an interesting, compelling character, but about making one that gives the film an excuse to give a shout-out to the housing crisis.
I cannot remember the last movie that took such a grand stab at ambition and meaning and just…well, failed.
Not to say the film doesn’t have some value. After all, even though the material is weak we still have many great actors working in great form here. Michael Douglas’s return to the his most famous character is a pleasure to see, and he truly livens up all the scenes he’s in. However, (and this is not the fault of Douglas) the problem is that he’s simply not in the film enough. And when he is, (with the exception of the last 20 minutes) he doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot or themes of the movie. The film is about LaBeouf’s character, who is very good but not as compelling and certainly not as interesting as Douglas’s.
Josh Brolin turns in a strong effort as Bretton James, a high-end, smarmy executive who is the film’s antagonist. Carey Mulligan, who is a fantastic actress, unfortunately has a thankless role as Gekko’s daughter, and Frank Langella deserves a mention as Jacob’s mentor whose suicide is the instigator for most of the film’s events. The script, as messy as it is, has some very witty dialogue, although virtually all of it goes to Michael Douglas. Best scene of the film though: Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox returning for the best cameo of the year.
One more mention: The ending. I cannot remember such a sappy, contrived, and just completely implausible ending to a film in a long while. Not only is it completely out-of-character for all involved, but it misses the emotional beat that it was obviously aiming for.
“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” was obviously aiming for the balance its predecessor held between relevance and snappy entertainment. But it never has any real sense of vision, of scope, of emotion. Although strong performances bolster it, “Money Never Sleeps” is everything the first wasn’t: Messy, bland, preachy, implausible, and worst of all? Soulless.