Everything is BIG in Oliver Stone’s sequel to his 1987 film Wall Street. This one is called Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. As the film opens, Gordon Gekko (reprised by Michael Douglas) is being released from prison. As the property clerk returns Gekko’s personal items to him including a gold Cartier ‘Santos’ watch, a gold ring, a gold money clip with no money, and an outsized mobile phone – about the size of your shoe, you will think back to the time when Gekko was the king of the corporate raiders. When “Greed, for a lack of a better word – was Good”. It is now 2001 and Gekko no longer commands the attention fitting for one who was called (in another time and place) A Master of the Universe. In fact, upon his release, Gekko found no one waiting for him.
Stone then fast forwards us to 2008. We see some astonishing crane shots of New York’s glass and steel skyscrapers. We watch as the Wall Street news is flashed on-screen for us. As the camera pans across this city-scape, we are going to eventually find ourselves in a magnificent huge apartment/penthouse/loft (pick one – they all fit) belonging to Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf) and his girl friend Winnie Gekko. Yes, she’s that Gekko, as in Gordon’s daughter, and she’s played by Carey Mulligan.
Jake Moore is a successful investment banker/proprietary trader for a firm called Keller Zabel whose head guy, Louis Zabel, is played by a charismatic Frank Langella. He is Jake Moore’s boss, he is Jake Moore’s idol, as well as father figure. Within minutes of the film’s opening, Zabel gives Moore an off-cycle bonus. The amount is $1,450.000.
Also within minutes the firm we once knew as Keller Zabel is reduced to a smoldering fiscal ruin. This financial coup-de-grace was engineered by Bretton James, who heads up Churchill, Schwartz. They are a modern-day successor to Gekko’s firm. Bretton (not Brett) is played by James Brolin. Everything about this guy is ostentatious. His credo and mantra is mine is bigger than yours. And he wants to prove it to you over and over again.
When Lou Zabel is forced to square off against Bretton James in a board room at the Federal Reserve, we see what Wall Street is really like. Sitting at a mahogany table the size of an 18 wheel truck, these robber barons make an offer to Zabel that he can’t refuse. With his Keller Zabel all but gone, James tells Zabel that he is going to have to give up his shares, for a mere pittance – $3 dollars a share (not a dime more) – when a month ago it was selling at $70. Zabel is crushed.This wasn’t the bail-out he expected. He takes his life the next morning by leaping into the path of the oncoming 6 Train heading south at the Lexington Avenue and 77th Street station.
Meanwhile, Gekko has written a book, and is doing the lecture tour thing. Jake Moore attends this lecture at Fordham University. He manages to get to talk to Gekko by introducing himself to Gekko with, “I’m Jake Moore, and I’m going to marry your daughter Winnie…”
That’s your set up. Gordon Gekko, Jake Moore, Winnie Gekko, and Bretton James are set on a collision course. What is at stake? Will Gekko become a Master of the Universe once more? Will Jake Moore, who is now working for Bretton James be able to bring James down based on info provided by Gekko in exchange for Jake helping Gekko to reconcile with his daughter.
Billions are at stake. While this is Wall Street money it is all leveraged and the real owners of this money, are the regular folks like you and me who live thousands of miles from Wall Street on Main Street, USA, and similar addresses. Stone and his writers, Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, have shown us the power, the greed, and the enormous numbers in play via the ever-changing plethora of investment vehicles and services created by the robber barons of Wall Street and international commerce, which all have just one simple rationale – how to make your money – their money. So it looks like the auteurs of this film, Mr.Stone, Mr. Loeb, and Mr. Schiff, have set their sights on a different goal, that greed is now bad, or have they?
They seem to be saying that Greed isn’t good, that greed is evil. Yet they can’t resist showing us the trappings of wealth – the fancy cars, the power lunches, the magnificent homes, and townhouses, and penthouses. When Bretton James gets some time with Jake Moore he has to show off his Goya Painting. Moore says, You a collector?
James says, Nah, collectors are obsessed. Meaning he has this painting simply because he can afford it. He also has a Ducati Motorcycle. When he brings Moore up to his country estate, he doesn’t have him driven up in a long chauffeured limo. Instead he has him brought to the baronial mansion in a short but fast private helicopter.
Stone doesn’t let us forget that which has been going on between men of power for about as long as there have been men of power – and that would be mine is bigger than yours. When Gekko, James, Moore and Winnie meet at a charity dinner being held at Met Museum – the camera lingers long and steadily on one trophy wife or girl friend after another in order to show off the ultra-luxurious jewelry dangling from each and every pierced ear. From your bank account in Peoria to the ear lobes of some grande dames dining at the Met Museum at yet another black-tie, red carpeted affair. So is Stone really telling us that greed is evil, or what? One way that Stone answers this question is to bring back Bud Fox with a beautiful babe on each arm. Bud Fox ( Charlie Sheen) has that look of excess – which on the family tree connects to directly to greed. It’s only a little more than a walk-one for Sheen, but it is quite telling. If Stone had chosen to appear on screen at this moment, rather than at a different time in the film, he might be winking at you, but as you watch, you might think you can feel Stone’s elbow nudging you instead.
The film has another terrific performance by Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. The swagger, the sneer, the knowing looks – it is all there as well you feeling that damn, I wish I had what Gekko has. James Brolin as Bretton James has even more than Gekko. But he is so black-hearted that we hate him fiercely. This is more of the way the script set him up for us, rather than Brolin’s doing as an actor. Still he is not playing a card-board caricature of a cinematic mustache-twirling villain. He’s wealthy, he’s sophisticated but he is also despicable. Carey Mulligan is Gekko’s daughter but she’s more of a sympathetic figure – she blames Gordon for the death of her brother. That’s what her character brings to the film, but Mulligan also brings an effective look to Winnie. Just looking at her eyes and you feel for her.
But Shia LaBoeuf comes up a bit short. His Jake Moore is not exactly a wimp – but then again he’s not exactly believable all the time. He’s decent enough as Moore, but even the 20’s somethings who will make up his core audience, are not going to come away raving about him.
Stone’s timing was a plus for him. Given the results of the real wall Street in the horrendous year 2008, Stone’s film will play well enough for the baby boomers now in their sixties who might have weathered that storm. But I think that the 40 somethings who are now unemployed, foreclosed, or have been through bankruptcy proceedings may not view this film with the same feelings as their parents.
But having said that, I’m still going on the record by recommending the film and by saying that it might be Oliver Stone’s first sequel, but he can be proud of it. Yes, the lure of seeing the sequel to his ’87 film will indeed help sell the tickets, but when you are exiting the theater, you won’t be making a comparison. This film has enough visual pizzazz, catchwords, and strong performances to stand on its own as a success.