The Wall Street shark from 1987 still believes lunch is for wimps. But he doesn’t mind a Chinese dinner with his estranged daughter. He is trying to make amends, and win her back. But his core is unchanged, and he goes by the motto “greed is good”. Remember Gordon Gekko’s famous speech in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street? “I am not a destroyer of companies. I am a liberator of them. The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
Game on: (extreme left) Douglas; LaBeouf (left) and Mulligan in Wall Street.
In post-economic-crash Manhattan, where Stone’s sequel to the classic is set, Gekko (Michael Douglas) appears delusional and farcical. Incapable of reform, Stone reaffirms Gekko as a sociopath—meant to be a facsimile of Wall Street bulls. Simplistic, but effective for a potboiler such as this.
Gekko was once subsumed by the hedge funds of the 1990s. Long after the banks bought the hedge funds, Gekko comes out after an eight-year term in a federal jail in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (the suffix, a phrase from the first). Seven years after he is a free man again, Gekko hawks his new book, propitiously titled Is Greed Good?, with another speech extolling the beauty and power of greed.
Gekko has changed around the edges. His silver hair is loose and conspicuously free of Brylcreem, sleeves are folded and suits unbuttoned. Stone must have been pushed by a compelling urge to say and show something about Wall Street’s monumental fall in recent times. Throughout the film, he hammers in messages about the depravity and malignancy of the greed for money. In some dialogues, stock market greed is compared to cancer. Some metaphors are ridiculously literal: for example, on two occasions, we see a bubble soaring up the Manhattan sky!
Gekko is hungry for a comeback, but he is more concerned with what he “really has”—his daughter, a Leftist blogger, and his to-be-born grandson. You will actually see Gekko’s reptilian eyes soften when he sees a sonogram of the throbbing embryo. Which is all good if Stone had gone all the way. Gekko is hanging somewhere between the wedges of greed and fatherly love and the script uses unconvincing and inane situations to bring out this dilemma.
The larger picture is left untouched. The characters have no real lament or anger at how and why the economy changed. The biggies are still making money, and making merry. Only the middle-class realtor is forced to go back to her former unglamorous profession, nursing, sometime in 2009. In that sense, compared with the first movie, there are no distinct points of view, world views or ideologies in this. Stone tries very hard to take a position, but finally seems to say this cancer will never stop growing, so just give up and be thankful for the small things.
What Gekko was in the 1980s, James Bretton (Josh Brolin) is now. He is responsible for the downfall of Wall Street old-timer Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) who, one day, eats his breakfast with his wife, walks out of his house into the nearest subway station and then jumps in front of a speeding train. For Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young whiz on Wall Street, Zabel was a mentor. Reminiscent of Bud Fox, he is an insider with a conscience. He is engaged to Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), Gordon’s daughter. Jake and Gordon make a deal. What ensues thereafter, amid missed opportunities, shifting loyalties and a heartbreak or two, has few surprises.
About 45 minutes into it, the film loses steam, resuscitated only by some overheated visuals dancing to a sexy soundtrack.
Technically, there are no surprises here. Stone loves the panoramic shot. The sweep of the moving camera looking down at Manhattan, through light reflected by reinforced glass, has the director’s stamp. He inserts many high-speed montages of monitors flashing numbers—a kind of numerical psychedelia. There is a long scene where the camera moves inside a lavish corporate dinner, resting on the gem-studded earrings of the women. It’s Stone’s grudging ode to consumerist luxury.
Douglas is in impeccable form. Despite the wishy-washyness of the character, he retains Gekko’s vileness. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the game”—no one could have uttered such a trite sentence better than Douglas. His dialogue delivery is in perfect sync with how he did it in the first film (I revisited the first before watching the sequel and rediscovered Gekko). LaBeouf, who some American critics almost wrote off, does an impressive insider-hustler alongside the veteran. Mulligan is her cute self, portraying the exact opposite of her father, even though the character may have been better off with fewer tears.
Langella, a towering actor, is brilliant in his cameo. Despite being the victim, his short presence in the film, and then death, are reminders of what’s wrong with the games Gekko loves to play.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not meant to be just for hedge fund managers and stockbrokers. Many critics called the first movie an “economic thriller”. This is an opportune time for such a thriller. Sadly, Stone couldn’t make it as fun as it could have been.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps released in theatres on Friday.