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.
Based on a graphic novel the violent tale revolves around Wes (James McAvoy) a meek 25 year-old office worker who hates his life. His boss berates him and he can’t even summon the balls to tell his slutty girlfriend to stop sleeping with his best buddy. But his world is suddenly rocked when Fox (Angelina Jolie)--a mysterious tattooed woman with a gun and a red sports car--takes him on the ride of his life. She takes him straight to The Fraternity a centuries old legendary group of hired assassins who live--and die--by their code: Kill one to save a thousand. Seems Wes’ long-lost father was a member who has just been whacked and he is now summoned to join up and unleash the inner killer in his genes. After a rigorous training regimen in which he is almost beaten to a pulp he emerges as the organization’s new golden boy and finds self-esteem in his new exciting alternative lifestyle. However the group’s enigmatic leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman) may have other plans in store for Wes that he isn’t quite sharing at the moment. McAvoy simply rocks as the most unexpected action star of the summer and that includes a season so far that has given us the quirky offbeat castings of Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton in Marvel comic book franchises. McAvoy (Atonement) has buffed up for the part but still looks like the average Joe exactly why the audience has a rooting interest as he becomes a fish-out-of-water in a group of hit men (and women). You’re with him all the way. This unusual choice is exactly what sets the film apart and makes it a complete original in an over-worn genre. Jolie on the other hand is absolutely who you would expect to play the heavily tatted Fox. Guns blazing feet slamming the pedal gorgeous and talented at taking guys out (of life) Jolie’s a card-carrying member of a club previously thought only open to men. She exudes cool and has never looked hotter. Freeman is at his best. He commands the screen adding his usual stoic presence to the proceedings with a nice twist that lets him show a creepier side than we usually get. Other members of the “club” are competently played by ever-reliable Terence Stamp German-born bad guy Thomas Kretschmann and rapper Common who shows he can keep up with the big boys--acting and other-wise. Hiring the Russian director Timur Bekmambetov for a summer action flick like this might have seemed an odd choice but anyone who’s seen his Hollywood-style homebaked hits Night Watch and Day Watch would know this is a visual stylist with no current equal in the action genre. His English-language debut is vibrant and pulsating alive in every way and thankfully more comprehensible story-wise than his previous work if no less fantastic. You still have to completely suspend belief for complete enjoyment but it’s all worth it. Bekmambetov seems incapable of staging anything in an ordinary way taking routine set-ups and turning them into violent bruising works-of-art. There’s not a single uninteresting shot in the entire movie which moves like the speeding train we see in one of the film’s most imposing sequences. Scene for scene this may be the most visually inventive trail blazing film of its kind in light years. Bring on the sequel.
TV’s favorite Martian, Ray Walston, died Monday in his Beverly Hills, Calif., home. He was 86.
Reuters is reporting that the actor died of natural causes after a short illness. Aside from starring as Uncle Martin on TV’s “My Favorite Martian,” Walston won a Tony Award for his performance as Mr. Applegate, the Devil, in the 1956 Broadway production of “Damn Yankees.” He re-created the role on film two years later.
Walston last appeared on TV in September during an episode of the CBS hit show “Touched by an Angel.”
GIBBONS AND BRENNER SUED: Daytime talker Leeza Gibbons and comedian David Brenner have been sued by Brenner’s former girlfriend.
Charisse Brody Weason alleges that Brenner made a derogatory comment about her ability to raise the teenage son she had with Brenner during the taping of “Leeza” on Dec. 7, 1999, The Associated Press reports.
The son has lived with Brenner for several years after a custody battle between the parents. Gibbons could not be reached for comment.
A SCAB NAMED BRADY: Is Greg Brady a scab? What would Johnny Bravo say?
Former “Brady Bunch” star Barry Williams is being labeled a scab by Actors Equity Union for taking a non-union job in the road production of “The Sound of Music,” Variety reports.
``I feel that I have been caught in the cross hairs of this dispute,'' said Williams, noting that he cannot accurately be called a ``scab'' since no one is on strike. ``I have been singled out by the union in a most aggressive and threatening way so that the union can reach the producers. And I am crying foul.''
The talks between the union and the Maryland-based producer Troika Entertainment fell apart. Troika decided to go with non-union actors, except for Williams, who accepted the part of Captain Von Trapp for $10,000 a week. Now Williams is up on ``internal union disciplinary'' charges that could preclude any future Equity work.