The street is as mean as ever ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The street is as mean as ever

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
My rating:

I have only just watched the original Wall Street - like, the day before I watched the sequel. Yes yes, a shameful omission in my cinematic knowledge; I know it's considered a classic and all, but my tastes during the '80s ran to the lowbrow. (Still do.) And I didn't dislike it, but I'm afraid I don't see what was so great about it. The storyline is familiar and predictable, the acting is often stilted, and it can get incredibly heavy-handed and on-the-nose. I think a lot of its appeal is due to its very timely release, just a couple of months after the stock market crash of 1987; it certainly feels like a movie that's very much of its time.

So now you know where I'm coming from when I say its sequel is a good deal better.

Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a bright young trader at investment bank Keller Zabel, with a beautiful girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) and a passion for green technology. Suddenly his bank crashes due to the huge amount of toxic mortgages on its books, and when its managing director - and Jake's beloved mentor - Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) fails to get a buyout, he commits suicide. Jake believes rival banker Bretton James (Josh Brolin) started rumours that led to Keller Zabel's demise, and plots revenge - with the aid of the perfect accomplice. The infamous Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), having served his prison sentence, has reinvented himself as an author and lecturer, and bears no love for James either. But Gekko also happens to be Winnie's estranged father - and he will help Jake, on the condition that Jake helps him reunite with his daughter.

This is going to be as much a review of the original Wall Street as it is of this sequel. I don't think I would've enjoyed the latter as much if I hadn't watched the former just beforehand - because it does a terrific job at tackling the same themes in fresh new ways. Wall Street was a very simple tale of an innocent seduced by the high life, then learns the error of his ways when they come back to bite him in the backside. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a more complex and less predictable story; for example, Jake Moore is a more nuanced character than Bud Fox was. There's a scene where Jake easily resists the same temptations of obscene wealth that Bud fell for - because he's already as rich and successful as Bud longed to be, and his ideals mark him as a morally stronger person than Bud was. It's only a short bit that quickly tells us this sequel will not be a retread.

And Gordon Gekko also plays a more multi-dimensional role here than the purely Svengali-type villain he was before. The subplot of him trying to reconnect with his daughter and recover the years he lost in prison is effective and makes him more sympathetic, although knowing who he used to be lends an unpredictability to his motives - and Michael Douglas' performance neatly balances genuine remorse with an underlying sense of menace. The original film had Gekko playing one half of two mentors (the other being Bud's father, played by Martin Sheen) that represented opposing moral forces battling for the protagonist's soul. This sequel adds a new dimension to the theme. Jake seeks to avenge one mentor by becoming protégé to two others; Gekko, as well as Bretton James, whom he starts working for in an effort to secretly undermine.

Which, of course, doesn't go the way he planned. Now, I confess, I'm a total n00b when it comes to finances. I can't even do my own taxes. (Thanks Mum!) But both films manage to make the world of high finance engrossing, even if I'm sure I'd enjoy it more if I understood what all this buying and selling of shares meant. (I still don't know why insider trading is such a bad thing.) The real story isn't in the rise and fall of stock prices, it's in the characters - Bud discovering the personal cost of his wheeling and dealing, and Jake risking his girlfriend and his passion project for his pursuit of revenge. Director Oliver Stone wisely focuses on the human story rather than the financial minutiae - and in this sequel, he has the benefit of Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff's screenplay, which is much less on-the-nose than the one he wrote with Stanley Weiser 24 years ago.

He also has the benefit of modern filmmaking technology, which makes this film a very visually flashy one. Stone has never been a subtle filmmaker, and he can get as heavy-handed in his direction as in his writing; there's a voiceover by Jake expositing about financial bubbles, and then later there's a long tracking shot of a soap bubble blown by some kids in a park. But a little hand-holding isn't too annoying with a plot as complex as this, and his stylistic flourishes can be a lot of fun; speaking of long tracking shots, there's another really cool one that takes us from street level to the dizzying heights of a Wall Street office building.

The cast are also on their game here. Douglas has no problem slipping back into Gekko's skin, even a kinder and gentler Gekko. Shia LaBeouf holds his own, Frank Langella is impressive in his short screentime, and Carey Mulligan does wonders with a pretty underwritten role. There's also Susan Sarandon playing Jake's mother, and although her subplot is somewhat superfluous, their scenes together are still fun to watch. The only slight disappointment is Josh Brolin, who really should be a much more hissable villain. But if he's the weak link in this cast, that's already a major improvement over the original film, who had Daryl Hannah. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the cameo by Charlie Sheen, and I won't spoil how Bud is doing in the present day; suffice it to say that his appearance is pure fanservice, but also very effective fanservice.

And it does end on a somewhat too pat and happy note. But on the video intro that Stone recorded for the Wall Street 20th Anniversary DVD, he repeatedly mentioned that he loves its characters, and I suspect he's a softie for Jake and Winnie as well. I'm kinda disappointed at the mixed reviews it's gotten; even my favourite critics have been lukewarm to it. But I have no rose-tinted memories of the original, and I can see where this sequel clearly improves on it. Wall Street was a sign of its times (somewhat despite itself, frankly). Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not, but that shouldn't be held against it when it is in fact a damn fine movie all its own.

NEXT REVIEW: Detective Dee
Expectations: Tsui Hark, don't let me down


k0k s3n w4i said...

Detective Dee tried too hard to be an actioner like Sherlock Holmes. Reign of Assassins is a far better film.

The only things I liked about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps are Michael Douglas, Frank Langella, Carey Mulligan and Carey Mulligan's hair.

I'm surprised you didn't say anything about the ending. It got almost universal hate. My girlfriend practically dragged me to see this movie, but even she thought it's execrable. The film bores me, for the most part. I was holding out for more magnificent bastardry... but sigh.

When are you reviewing Buried?

TMBF said...

But I did mention the ending. And yes, it was pretty weak, but I don't think it ruined the movie.

Buried is definitely on my list of movies to watch, but it's a ways off. I'm seriously behind on the current releases.

fadz said...

f***! and i skipped this one!!! F***!!

chicnchomel said...

shia is hot

k0k s3n w4i said...

so you did :) it was such a throwaway line i didn't notice it.

you might want to get to buried sooner than later. i might be wrong but i think word of mouth is going to ruin it, and theatres might just pull it off their rosters in response.

McGarmott said...

Detective Dee would've been an awesome movie ... if Tsui Hark didn't direct it. Sigh.