Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wall Street 2: 'Money' Talks

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010) • View trailer for Wall Street 2
Four stars (out of five) • Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.23.10

Asked by a scorpion to give it a ride across a lake, a frog wisely hesitated, reasonably concerned that the predator would sting it. 

"Why would I do that?" the scorpion replied. "I'll be on your back; if I sting you, I'd drown."

This sounded logical to the frog, which therefore allowed the scorpion onto its back. But sure enough, halfway across the lake, the scorpion stung the frog. 

"Why?" the frog gasped, as painful black waves of death closed in. "Now we'll both die!"

"It's my nature..." the scorpion answered. 
Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) fails to recognize that his
relationship with fiancee Winnie (Carey Mulligan) will
be severely threatened by his dealings with her
estranged father, particularly when he starts seeing
the man -- the infamous Gordon Gekko -- behind
her back.

I've always wondered, given writer/director Oliver Stone's left-leaning, populist politics, if he regretted having created the character of Gordon Gekko, so brilliantly played by Michael Douglas in 1987's Wall Street

Because while Gekko was designed as the villain we were intended to loathe, Douglas did his job too well; the fictitious financial shark made his malignant behavior charming, and became the admired role model for white-collar hooligans who went on a two-decade binge of Wall Street shenanigans that led, inevitably, to the economic crisis that afflicts us to this day. 

Given the opportunity to redress the catastrophe that he helped create  in his cinematic world  would Gekko mend his ways? 

Or would he remain true to his nature? 

This question sits at the heart of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, an engaging and quite timely follow-up to Stone's earlier film ... which, it must be said, retains its sharp-edged immediacy nearly a quarter-century later. This sequel  written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff  begins during the early months of 2008, just before all hell breaks loose. 

Actually, that's not entirely true; we start with a quick prologue several years earlier, as Gekko is released from prison. (Cue a quick giggle as his property is returned, including a "mobile phone" the size of a toaster.) After vanishing beneath the radar for a time, Gekko re-surfaces, having embraced the new career sought by all white collar criminals: best-selling author and well-paid motivational speaker. 

Elsewhere on Wall Street, ambitious young trader Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) enjoys a good life as the much-admired protege of financial legend Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella). Zabel is one of the old-school tycoons: an honorable man who regards honest, ethical behavior as a moral imperative, rather than an affectation to be cast off when convenient. 

That makes him an anachronism in the eyes of modern financial thugs such as Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who does his part, behind the scenes, to leverage Zabel into a precarious position that leaves his company at risk. Then Bretton leads the refusal to help bail Zabel out during a meeting with his colleagues at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

Zabel responds badly. 

(Zabel's company is a parallel here to our real-world Lehman Brothers, forced into bankruptcy when it was refused assistance by other banks and the U.S. government ... which, you'll recall, subsequently went to bat for all sorts of other high-profile Wall Street institutions. Now granted the benefit of hindsight, more than a few analysts have wondered whether helping Lehman Brothers would have softened the much great crisis waiting just around the next corner. 

(Loeb and Schiff's script clearly plays with this notion.) 

Ignited into a righteous fury by the way his mentor has been treated, Jacob orchestrates a bit of payback. His Don Quixote-style tilt at Bretton's windmill can't possibly do any real damage, although it does impress Bretton himself, who offers Jacob a job. Believing he can do even more damage from within, the young hothead accepts. 

In one of those coincidences so beloved by cinema storytelling, Jacob has a loving relationship with Gordon's daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who has abandoned all contact with her father. When Gekko storms back into town on a book tour, Jacob seeks him out: perhaps initially for all the right reasons  to act as an instrument of reconciliation between his future wife and father-in-law  but soon for a few wrong reasons, as well. 

In return for Jacob's efforts to persuade Winnie to forgive her father, Gekko feeds the young man tantalizing tidbits about Bretton's questionable financial dealings. 

Where, we wonder, can all this be heading? 

In some ways, this sequel is superior to the original Wall Street, because Loeb and Schiff do a much better job of balancing the two stories: the bond between Jacob and Winnie, which can only be damaged by contact with her father, and the arcane financial back-stabbing and double-dealing. 

I never gave a damn about Charlie Sheen's relationship with Daryl Hannah in the first film; her character (Darien) was too shallow, and his (Bud) was too unsympathetic. That story involved only one element of suspense: whether Bud would mature enough to perceive the error of his ways, and do the right thing. We know the outcome, since Gekko wound up in prison. 

In an engaging nod to those previous events, Sheen's Bud Fox pops up briefly here, during a party of elite movers and shakers. 

Jacob, though, is cut from far different cloth. His conduct has been molded by Zabel, and so he views the world in terms of black and white. Jacob also has the benefit of Winnie's kind-hearted candor, and the political sensibilities that fuel her "little lefty blog" that she co-authors as an underpaid labor of love. 

For his part, Jacob has done his best to steer investors toward an environmentally forward-thinking research project into fusion power, headed by a scientist  played by Austin Pendleton, a veteran character actor who wins our sympathy immediately  who trusts the young trader implicitly. 

But being inherently decent, Jacob is unprepared for the manipulative likes of Bretton James and Gordon Gekko ... and also is inclined to compromise his own ethics if he feels the end justifies the means. And that, folks, is a long and slippery slope. 

LaBeouf credibly handles his character's evolution, although it becomes increasingly difficult to excuse his gullibility. 

Nobody plays a smug bastard better than Douglas, who chews up the scenery  and everybody in sight  with relish, ketchup and mustard. He continues to live up to Gekko's predatory nature, his eyes forever on the move, always seeking an angle. 

It's a slickly shaded performance, because while Gekko appears eminently believable to Jacob, while venting the heartbreak of a father who craves the companionship of the only child he has left, we see what the younger man misses: the crafty glint in Douglas' gaze. 

Douglas' scene-stealing elan notwithstanding, the best performance belongs to Mulligan. As was true of her Academy Award-nominated role in An Education, her work here is heartbreakingly persuasive. As we meet Winnie, she worships the ground on which Jacob walks, believing him the One True Soulmate who will keep her warm and secure. Then events cause doubts to surface; her expression  and the set of her body  become guarded, slightly withdrawn. 

Her stand-out scenes are with Douglas, as Winnie eventually is forced to interact with her father. Her emotional surrender, seated on the steps outside a posh event, is all-consuming: one of those moments that transcends acting, when "Carey Mulligan" ceases to exist, and we're truly watching Winnie Gekko. The young woman's vulnerability is raw and painful, and Stone frames this moment perfectly. 

Stone gets similarly shaded work from Mulligan at other, quieter moments; watch how her face changes, as Gekko breaks off a conciliatory chat with her, to stand and glad-hand some business bigwig who wanders past their restaurant table. 

Brolin is almost too believable as a voracious predator, and you gotta love the personality statement made by Bretton's taste in artwork. Susan Sarandon pops up memorably as Jacob's grasping mother, addicted to flipping real estate, while Eli Wallach  my God; 94 years old and still vibrant!  is unforgettable as a savvy Wall Street veteran who has seen it all. 

We walk away from this film convinced of several things, starting with the fact that all these high-flying financial schemes really are too complicated to understand ... which may leave math-challenged viewers in a state of dazed befuddlement. Some of the floor-trading dialogues and back-room discussions are laced with arcane techno-babble worthy of a Star Trek TV episode. 

But the film's central metaphor, which Gekko lovingly explains to Jacob at one point  Holland's disastrous 17th century fling with tulip speculation  is easy to grasp. As is this film's obvious suggestion that all Wall Street fat cats are hustlers, swindlers and charlatans ... and absolutely not to be trusted. 

One wishes such lessons could be taken to heart. 

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