Friday, October 01, 2010

Stone and Douglas present a kinder, gentler Gekko

When a sequel is made more than 20 years after the original or last installment in the franchise, it is sure to raise some concerns, but Oliver Stone's follow up to his own “Wall Street” is the rare sequel that justifies its existence both creatively and financially.

In 1987, Stone took a behind-the-scenes look at the dirty dealings on Wall Street only a year after an insider trading scandal made headlines. Now in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Stone takes on the 2008 market meltdown.

The main character of the 1980s edition was Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox, a young, naïve broker who is taken under the wing of the oily do-anything-to-make-a-buck Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Few people probably even remember Sheen in that film. His character was more of a plot device to be manipulated by Gekko.

Douglas won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Gekko, but, a strange thing happened. Although Stone meant him as a villain, he became an icon to would-be Wall Street hot shots. The film was meant as a cautionary tale, perhaps cautioning against the very greed that led to 2008's market fiasco. It would appear that perhaps Douglas was far too persuasive in his delivery of the infamous “greed is good” speech.

The new film opens with Gekko being released from jail in 2001 after an eight-year sentence for his crooked transactions and then flash forwards seven years. As with the original, Gekko is a supporting character to a younger main character.

This time around we have Shia LaBeouf as a broker who is not nearly as green as Sheen's Fox. When vicious rumors lead to his mentor and employer's (Frank Langella) firm going under, LaBeouf's Jake Moore seeks vengence against the man behind it: Bretton James (Josh Brolin).

Gekko is brought back into the plot because Jake wants to marry his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Winnie hasn't spoken to her father in years, and a deal is established between Gekko and his future son-in-law. Gekko will supply Jake with information against Bretton and Jake will help repair the relationship between father and daughter.

“Wall Street” was a film about fathers and father figures. Charlie Sheen's real life father, Martin, even appeared as Bud Fox's blue-collar father, who represented good to Gekko's bad. The twist is this time Gekko is the father who wants to do good.

The film lacks the cynical bite of the original and in some ways, like the Gekko character, Stone has gone soft. Stone isn't making a documentary by any means, but he does give a very basic explanation of what happened in 2008 that is clear, concise and will make sense even to those with only rudimentary understanding of the way the economy works.

As a piece of entertainment, “Money Never Sleeps” is efficient at setting up and creating its drama. Stone is painting with broad strokes and using big emotions. The character conflicts and struggles, though somewhat contrived, are effective largely due to the strong cast.

LaBeouf, in his first truly adult role, is a substantial upgrade from Sheen who felt like a lightweight in the original. After wasting the promise he showed in films like “Holes” and “Disturbia” on the “Transformers” series, LaBeouf proves he can handle dramatic scenes believably.

The supporting cast is tops. Veterans like Langella, Susan Sarandon and the 94-year-old Eli Wallach all get a few solid scenes and Brolin is just as cooly sleazy and charismatic as Douglas was in the original “Wall Street,” but as was the case the first time this is Douglas' movie.

Relatively speaking, this is a kinder, gentler Gordon Gekko. Douglas still plays him with a cocky assuredness, but he is also seeking redemption and repentance. There is a scene of surprising tenderness between Douglas and Mulligan as he begs to be let back into her life. For many this will not be the triumphant return of the great Gordon Gekko that they were looking for, but, fear not, old habits die hard and flashy the great manipulator shine through.

Many expected Stone's new “Wall Street” to be an angry indictment of the corruption on Wall Street that lead to 2008's financial crisis. In actuality, there is very little anger in the film. The feeling is more frustration. Stone's target isn't Wall Street, but everyone. As Gekko notes “everyone is drinking the same Kool-Aid.”

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