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.
Although the title has “war” in it Sorkin thankfully steers clear of those woes. Set in the ‘80s the screenwriter instead focuses on the real-life story of one Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) a Texan congressman who likes women and booze--and helping the underdog. In this case it’s Afghanistan which has been brutally invaded by the Soviet Union. In order to help the mujahideen (Afghanistan's rebel fighters) repel the Russians from their occupied land Wilson aligns himself with two key people: blue-blood conservative and fervent anti-communist Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and temperamental CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Together these three raise the covert budget from $5 million to $1 billion and get the weapons in the mujahideens’ hands. Needless to say the Soviet Union hightails it out of Afghanistan and falls apart while Wilson comes out smelling the sweetest. But in reality empowering the Afghan people only created a new monster. As Wilson aptly says at the end “…we f**ked up the endgame.” Hanks and Roberts haven’t been this cool in a movie since their heydays in the ‘90s. Hanks has particular fun as the jocular Wilson whose exterior would indicate a guy who only wants to have a good time but whose sharp mind deeply felt patriotism and sense of fair play make him the most unlikely hero. As his lovely costar Roberts seems to be aging like a fine wine turning in a very elegant performance as the Southern rich socialite who clearly has her own opinions and can play any game thrown at her. But the real humor comes from Hoffman as the sardonic Avrakotos a career CIA man who has seen and done it all with little to no recognition for his work. The actor is just having a hell of a year with great performances in both Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages. But if we could pinpoint one Hoffman performance the Academy might recognize this one would be it. Also good (and having a great year) is Amy Adams as Wilson’s loyal administrative assistant. The best part is that all of them work Sorkin’s dialogue like pros delivering the lines in that rapid style the West Wing creator loves best. Of course Charlie Wilson's War’s director is no slouch either. Mike Nichols is very familiar with this kind of talky dramedy. Perhaps broader in scope than his usual more intimate fare Nichols is still able to steer his cast to near perfection as a genuine actor’s director. He obviously has a nice rapport with Julia Roberts having already guided her to one of her better performances in Closer but seems to frame Tom Hanks and the rest with all the professionalism he has at his fingertips. No the only real problem with Charlie Wilson's War is that it is coming on the tail end of a slew of movies about troubles in the Middle East. Even though Hollywood thinks it’s a hot-button topic the audiences don’t necessarily agree. From The Kingdom to Rendition to Lions for Lambs and others moviegoers are just not responding despite the star power of a Jamie Foxx Reese Witherspoon or Tom Cruise. But out of all these movies Charlie Wilson's War has the best shot to rise above--not only because it has box office draws Hanks and Roberts attached but because it’s the most well-rounded and engaging of the bunch. Good luck Charlie!