It’s not a conflict most of us are new to: the butting heads of an evangelical Christian and an atheist. Of course Matthew Chapman’s thriller The Ledge takes this typical opposition and adds a salacious complication: a beautiful woman. Now with such a ubiquitous conflict Chapman has lots of room to explore more fully the back and forth between these two schools of thought but unfortunately the film only skirts that concept and uses it as a more of a means to an end rather than a conversation.
The film focuses on three different men and in that two different debates. The first pair comes together when one of them threatens to jump to his death from – you guessed it – a ledge. The first man Officer Hollis (Terrence Howard) finds out his children aren’t biologically his right before being called to talk Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) off his perch. Of course as he finds out Gavin is on the opposite side of that fence; Hunnam’s character not only covets but sleeps with his neighbor’s wife. While this conflict of interest for Howard’s character is one of the more interesting aspects of the film it's overshadowed by the clandestine love affair and a slew of turgid inconclusive theological discussions.
As Hollis tries desperately to sort out his own demons and get Gavin off the roof the would-be jumper slowly unravels the details of the romance that landed him there. If he doesn’t jump at noon “someone else” dies. Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “someone else” is Shana (Liv Tyler) the wife of that evangelical Christian neighbor Joe (Patrick Wilson). Is that enough plot for you? Because it was certainly more than enough for me. As we wind our way through this ambitiously complicated story we encounter Joe’s textbook impenetrable Christian ideals thrown right up against Gavin and his homosexual roommate. Oh yes the plot tries to get into that debate as well.
The capable cast does its best to bring the hefty winding story back down to earth and they almost succeed. Hunnam is the weakest of the bunch but he’s really there as a bit of beefcake to tempt Tyler’s sheltered character. The real heavyweight here is Wilson who despite being dealt a fairly narrow character who rattles off the same overzealous discourse we’ve heard time and again gives his performance everything he’s got. Joe isn’t much more than his stalwart religion and his mounting anger but Wilson tries damn hard to offer just a little something extra. Howard similarly lends weight to his character’s story though it unfortunately becomes little more than an afterthought once the romance between Gavin and Shana gets going.
In fact that romance is the most enjoyable aspect of the film even though it begs us to focus on the theological and moral questions at hand. The forbidden love builds awkwardly and organically something so many films tend to gloss over in order to get to the all-important first kiss. Luckily for many of the big questions that go unanswered in the film their chemistry carries the plot along and almost manages to distract us from their lack of resolution.
The Ledge seems to be a case of Chapman biting off more than he could chew. Every aspect of the plot is a worthy intriguing topic but when they all collide in a mere two-hour period it’s a challenge to give any of the components the attention and depth they really deserve.
Much has changed in the world of finance since Oliver Stone first explored its grubby innards in 1987’s Wall Street a film that netted Michael Douglas a Best Actor Oscar for his iconic portrayal of scheming corporate raider Gordon Gekko. Technological advances regulatory changes a terrorist attack a global economic meltdown and the emergence of China as a dominant player have combined to transform the securities industry in the two-plus decades since Gekko paraphrasing Ivan Boesky first captured its more sinister aspects in those famous words “Greed is good.”
What hasn’t changed is Stone who remains every bit as hubristic and heavy-handed as ever. With his sprawling spotty follow-up Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps he has once again taken it upon himself to put forth the definitive portrait of the culture of money and the film suffers badly for it. Set in 2008 in those halcyon days just prior to the subprime mortgage crisis and its subsequent leveling of financial landscape the film is told through the wide eyes of young Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) the 21st-century heir to Bud Fox’s mantle. (Charlie Sheen who portrayed Fox in the first film resurfaces in a fun but ultimately pointless cameo in the sequel.)
Jake we are told is a successful proprietary trader but his countenance more closely resembles that of a venture capitalist. (The risky practices and alleged conflicts of interests of prop traders are widely believed to be among the causes of the financial collapse; the Obama administration has recently proposed their ban.) Though he’s as profit-driven as any other young Wall Street turk he also boasts something of an idealistic streak and hopes to use his position at the prestigious investment banking firm of Keller Zabel to further the cause of a cutting-edge green energy startup. No doubt it’s this noble trait that appeals to his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) a progressive pixie who runs a muckraking leftist blog and who also happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter.
Jake’s bright future takes a dark turn when rumors of over-exposure to “toxic assets” swallow up first his company Keller Zabel and then its founder Lou (Frank Langella) who opts to retire beneath a speeding subway train after the Federal Reserve denies his request for an emergency bailout. Devastated by the suicide of his boss and mentor Jake vows to exact revenge upon the slithery brute he believes to be the source of the poisonous rumors: Bretton James (Josh Brolin) a prominent partner at Churchill Schwartz (read: Goldman Sachs) Keller’s chief rival.
And where exactly does Gordon Gekko figure in all of this? After the opening sequence during which he emerges from a lengthy prison stay to find no one waiting to greet him Gekko doesn’t re-enter the story until about the 30th minute and lurks mainly on its periphery for much of his screen time. In the years since his incarceration for the various misdeeds chronicled in the first film he’s rebranded himself as a sort of populist crusader against speculator avarice hawking a book about the ills of the financial system entitled Is Greed Good? (“You’re all pretty much fucked ” he instructs a lecture audience.) Gekko’s got a grudge of his own against Bretton his one-time protege turned state’s witness in his securities fraud conviction and he agrees to supply Jake with crucial insider info in exchange for help in brokering a reconciliation with his daughter Winnie.
All of this is set against a backdrop of the collapses and bailouts of the 2008 financial tumult — a topic that could easily warrant its own film. (Indeed HBO is currently readying its adaptation of Aaron Ross Sorkin’s book about the crisis.) His ambition outstripping his ability Stone labors awkwardly to integrate the macro of the crisis with its many backroom deals and soap-opera intrigues and the micro of Jake’s increasingly complex relationship with Gekko. Mulligan’s character meant to serve as the film’s emotional anchor as well as its conscience is ultimately little more than a distraction diverting us from the story’s more compelling elements. The last third of the film which focuses on Gekko’s reemergence as a Wall Street player feels tacked-on as if driven by data from test audiences dissatisfied with his relatively minor presence in the early goings.
There are moments in Money Never Sleeps where Stone successfully invokes the heady verve of the 1987 film but for a story dealing with such titillating subject matter its pace too often drags to a near-halt as it wallows excessively in Gekko family melodrama. (The performances it should be noted are all terrific though LaBeouf is an exceedingly tough sell as a would-be BSD.) And a topic as sexy as money should never ever be boring.
Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a Latino drug dealer from the East Bronx and a very good businessman in his way. He knows that money is master and he's got a lot of it--about $4 million liquid cash stored at the apartments of various downtrodden acquaintances whose rent he pays in exchange for the favor. Aside from occasional bloodshed life is good but when Victor's girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) gets pregnant he decides to go legit and his remarkable street savvy means very little in the face of so-called legitimate business. He's incredibly naïve and the mistakes he makes along the way cost him dearly. First he teams up with Carmen's friend Trish's (Denise Richards) boyfriend Jack (Peter Sarsgaard) an investment banker--mistake number one. Then because drug dealing isn't an easy profession to phase oneself out of Victor cuts a deal with his boss La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini) promising her a 500 percent return on a $1.5 million investment if she lets him out of his territory unscathed. That was mistake number two as Victor discovers when Jack turns out to be significantly less legit than he seems (see mistake number one). Of course the whole point of this mess is that you can't tell the good guys from the bad just by looking at them especially if they're all pretty much bad to the bone.
Leguizamo a Colombian-born New York-based actor known since 1995's House of Buggin' for his biting standup comedy and satirical bent attempts to prove in Empire that he can still hold his own in a dramatic role. While he makes a valiant effort Empire is not a film that showcases his dramatic talents to their best effect. If we were to take each scene as an individual vignette it would have to be said that the cast plays them at least passably and sometimes exceptionally well. But a film is more than a series of scenes strung together. In Empire the actions and emotions the characters display in one scene are often completely unconnected to the actions and emotions they display in the next which results in a sad lack of continuity and motivation that must be blamed less on the actors and more on the script and the direction. You know something's wrong when the actors who come off best are the ones with the most one-dimensional characters: in this case Richards as Carmen's two-faced friend Rossellini as the hard-hearted drug queenpin and Sarsgaard as the slick investment banker.
That brings us to the directing issue. Empire written and directed by Franc. Reyes is a film with something to say about the urban Latino culture and community a group of people who get very little chance in the mainstream American media to say much of anything. He should be commended for that. It's unfortunate however that he uses every played-out trick in the urban-cinema book to get his message across. From casting rappers (Fat Joe and Treach from Naughty by Nature) to draw in the crowds to shooting drug deals and fight sequences with jerky handheld cameras to wallowing in creepy slow-motion funeral scenes Empire doesn't bring anything new to the bad-drug-dealer-tries-to-go-good plotline except perhaps an uninspired--if seldom used--punch line best encapsulated by Fat Joe who attended the screening Hollywood.com attended and had this to say to the crowd in the theater "Don't be fooled by the shoot 'em up bang bang…if you use drugs or sell drugs…you're gonna die."