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CANNES — Oliver Stone’s 1987 film “Wall Street” took viewers into an exotic world. Those were the days when financial news occupied the gray back pages of newspapers. Suddenly, here was a movie about banking that looked like a thriller — traders talked a mile a minute, brokers did deals between gulps of coffee, millions of dollars moved in the twinkling of an eye, people talked on cell phones (albeit the size of a brick), and men could change destiny through insider trading. You also learned that, in the by-now iconic phrase uttered by its anti-hero, Gordon Gekko, “greed is good.”
Stone returns to this world in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” but there’s nothing exotic about it anymore. It’s featured on the nightly news in every unemployment statistic and freshly announced corporate downsizing. The bank bailout debate still rages, and arrogant banking kingpins looks less like anti-heroes than out-and-out villains.
So Stone and his savvy writers, Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, have crafted a tale that takes advantage of viewer’s newfound knowledge and cynicism. At its heart is a pair of good young people wanting to put money into green energy while all around them there revolves, like an evil planetary system, gravitational forces that know only unregulated (in every sense of the word) chicanery.
Thus “Money Never Sleeps” is that rare sequel that took its time — 23 years — so it not only advances a story but also has something new to say. The film overheats now and then but blame this on filmmaking passion. One senses a fully engaged filmmaker at the helm, driving the movie at a lightning pace as if in a hurry to get to the next scene or next aphorism that further illuminates this dark world.
How audiences will react to revelations that may no longer be revelations is hard to say. But Stone has cast his movie well with Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin and Carey Mulligan to attract younger viewers while Michael Douglas’ return as Gekko can’t help being a major lure.
Wisely, Gekko becomes a subplot. While the opening sequence details his release from prison in 2001, along with some good jokes about that ancient cell phone and the limo that pulls up being for a rapper not him, the story settles quickly on a young proprietary trader Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who just happens to be in love with Winnie Gekko (Mulligan), Gordon’s estranged daughter.
The focus thus shifts to the pre-2008 bubble, where Jake gets caught off-guard by a meltdown in his own investment banking firm. Its head and his mentor (Frank Langella) takes a huge fall when a governmental bail-out never materializes and an old nemesis, Bretton James (Brolin), a partner in a rival bank, pounces on the firm like a vulture smelling carrion.
Jake finds a small way to get revenge for his old boss, which catches James’ attention. Rather than settle the score, James offers Jake a job. Which only postpones Jake’s determination to avenge his mentor.
Meanwhile Jake takes in a lecture by Gekko, who is promoting his new book, “Is Greed Good?” Jake approaches the author and offers to help facilitate a rapprochement between father and daughter. Gekko agrees but, as is his nature, plays things cagey.
So a story about the new Wall Street gets entwined with one about Gekko struggling to rehabilitate his image and regain respect in financial circles. Prison hasn’t softened Gekko up but it has perhaps sharpened his moral perceptions.
Looking at the new Wall Street, he remarks, “I was small time compared to these crooks.” His book anticipates the meltdown but — shades of the old Gekko — he wishes he had $100 million to take advantage of it.
Can you win two Oscars playing the same role? An actor rarely gets the opportunity to revive a breakthrough role in a way that allows him to rethink the character in terms of changes time has wrought and to reflect on where fatal flaws once lay. Douglas does this brilliantly.
He does so by carrying on with a character very reminiscent of the original, with the same mannerisms and slicked-back hair, but instead of a defiant, cocky pirate, he is now a man with patience, one willing to wait for the opportunity to strike and to put family first — if it can be arranged on his terms.
LaBeouf nicely balances his character’s idealism with cold-eyed pragmatism. He gets the earnestness but also the steely determination.
Mulligan and Brolin deliver extremely strong supporting roles with attention-grabbing characters that could star in other movies.
Veterans Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon and, of course, Langella make vivid impressions with their screen time.
Stone gets too fancy here and there. He and his “Alexander” cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto swoop the camera around Manhattan as if it were attached to a bird. A heavy reliance on multiple screens, graphics and digital tricks makes it feel like you’re watching CNN with all its computer-screen busy-ness.
This often distracts from what the characters are saying. With most movies, this may not be a bad idea, but the dialogue here is so forceful you want to savor every zinger.
Venue: Festival de Cannes — Out of Competition
20th Century Fox
Production companies: An Edward Pressman production
Cast: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella
Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriters: Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff
Based on characters created by: Stanley Weiser, Oliver Stone
Producer: Edward Pressman, Eric Kopeloff
Executive producers: Alessandro Camon, Alex Young, Celia Costas
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Production designer: Kristi Zea
Music: Craig Armstrong
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnick
Editors: David Brenner, Julie Monroe
PG-13, 131 minutes
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