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Review: ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’

Oliver Stone Goes Soft and Puts Audience to Sleep

Michael Douglas reprises his role as Gordon Gekko opposite Shia LaBeouf in

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Above: Michael Douglas reprises his role as Gordon Gekko opposite Shia LaBeouf in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

There was a time when you could at least count on an Oliver Stone film to be angry and eager to make some sort of commentary. But his latest film “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (opening September 24 throughout San Diego) proves he’s become a toothless old fart ready for the retirement home.

The first “Wall Street” (1987) was no great work of art but it bristled with energy thanks mostly to Michael Douglas’ unapologetic performance as Gordon Gekko. Douglas’s Gekko was a ruthless corporate raider who preached, “Greed is good.” His protégé Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) ultimately questions Gekko’s greed and ruthlessness resulting in Gekko going to jail for his unethical practices. In that film, Stone made clear that greed was not good and that the people on Wall Street were a despicable lot. The problem was that Gekko and his greed came across as far sexier and more intoxicating than the hard-working, morally upstanding blue-collar folk that Stone wanted us to admire. Whatever its flaws, the first “Wall Street” was at least entertaining to watch and Stone was still passionately preaching from his soapbox about things that ailed America.

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Oliver Stone "directing" Shia LaBeouf and Michael Douglas in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

Fast-forward two-plus decades. We once again have Oliver Stone and Douglas’ Gordon Gekko on Wall Street. Only this time there’s nothing fun to watch and no message to be found. Stone has apparently returned to Wall Street not to skewer those who helped send America into its worst economic downturn in decades but rather to tell a warm and fuzzy tale of redemption. You could call this the feel-good economic film of the year because all the horrible, greedy, unethical, and illegal things that occur are all glossed over so we can end the film at a birthday party with a bubble machine sending happy little bubbles to heaven (forget about any economic bubbles that might have burst in the past and wreaked havoc).

I did not go into “Wall Street 2” with high hopes but I did at least expect Stone – who has been known for his politic passions and social commentary – to tear into Wall Street and the government for their evil practices. But this new mellow Stone, the one who made George W. Bush into a nice guy in “W,” has no teeth. He’s gone completely soft and that makes his film a complete bore. Stone’s only watchable films are the ones where he or his characters are riled up and pissed off, and wanting to scream their outrage – films like “Salvador,” “Platoon,” “Natural Born Killers,” and “Talk Radio.” But this kinder, gentler Stone has nothing to say; he’s not driven by any passions and his films end up meandering about. In the past, you could fault Stone for his ham-fisted preaching but at least he made his films pulse with energy. But now that all that is gone, and his recent work feels hollow and dull.

“Wall Street 2” picks up two decades after the first one with Douglas’ Gekko coming out of prison. He’s poor but he’s written a book on greed and is traveling the lecture circuit. His estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) has inexplicably hooked up with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a stockbroker, even though she expresses nothing but disgust for her father and all he represents. Jake claims to have ethics and to be trying to make the world a better place by pitching “green” stocks for companies that have an eye to improve the environment. Yeah, whatever.

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Josh Brolin and Eli Wallach in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

Anyway, he thinks Gekko can help him get revenge on the Breton James (Josh Brolin, the only good thing in the film). James is the man who brought down the company Jake worked for thus causing Jake’s mentor to commit suicide. Winnie warns that her dad will only hurt them but Jake moves forward with his plan and gets closer to Gekko… or at least that’s what he thinks.

Neither Stone nor Douglas’ Gekko ever find the fire that made their first collaboration wicked fun. Douglas’ performance in the new film isn’t bad. He makes an effort to invest Gekko with some intensity but the character is never very compelling. We suspect he’s hatching some plot and that’s what we want and expect from him. But we have a hard time buying into the film’s lame attempts to humanize him. Gekko, like Stone, seems to have gone soft in his old age. At one point someone says that no one got hurt from all the inside trading and assorted other unethical Wall Street practices. The old Oliver Stone would have been outraged but the new one just plods past this and misses the opportunity to hold Wall Street accountable for anything it’s done.

Now Stone’s less than subtle filmmaking techniques come across as more annoying than ever. At least when he was fired up, his simplistic devices could be overshadowed by his passion. But now they are standing naked in the sun. So when Wall Street crashes Stone states the obvious with his visuals: we get a tilt down of a Wall Street building and then superimposed over that is a shot of a series of dominoes knocking each other down. Later in the film we get a montage that reconnects everything we just saw to make sure we understand what’s just happened. Stone was never a subtle filmmaker but he used to be an interesting one. Not any more.

And here's a petty complaint but one that kind of symbolizes what's wrong with the film. When Jake's phone rings, the ring tone is the theme for "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." It's funny but it makes no sense at all. Jake would never have that as his ring tone. He seems oblivious to pop culture. But it seems like a gag some sound editor decided to do since Eli Wallach (the original "Bad" in that spaghetti western) appears in the film. And that's par for the course in this film, a distinct lack of attention to any kind of detail that makes this world credible.

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

No, no, no, no,no... not Shia LeBeouf!

Making matters worse is the casting of Shia LaBeouf. He pretty much ruins everything he’s in. I don’t know why he doesn’t cause the same outrage and disdain as Michael Cera. Cera may be one note but at least he plays that one note well. LaBeouf, on the other hand, has perfected nothing but the ability to say “no” repeatedly and really fast. Don’t believe me? Well check this video out. But he doesn’t even get to put this skill to use here. But we are asked to believe that this boy actor is a successful stockbroker and a loving fiancé. Well it ain’t happening. He seems completely out of place and unbelievable. I can’t even believe him as a grown up. But for some reason he keeps getting cast in high profile films.

As I mentioned, Douglas does well in an underwritten part that gives Gekko a warm and fuzzy makeover. Josh Brolin (who was Dubya for Stone in "W") is the only Wall Street guy allowed to be an a-hole. He's greedy and ruthless like Gekko was. A pair of old vets make appearances: Eli Wallach and Frank Langella. They try to lend an air of dignity to the proceedings but are on screen too briefly to be of much help.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (rated PG-13 for brief strong language and thematic elements) all but put me to sleep. It cops out to the worst sentimental clichés and delivers a trite, feel-good tale about greedy, shallow, ambitious people making lots of money.

Companion viewing: “Wall Street,” “American Madness,” “Boiler Room,” “American Psycho”

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