Friday, May. 14, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps: Gekko and Greed Are Back

The Cannes Film Festival got Tasered to life today with the world premiere of Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. In this sequel to the 1987 satire of institutionalized greed, Michael Douglas' predator in chief Gordon Gekko is sprung from the prison term he was serving for mischief committed in the original film, just in time to see his spiritual offspring manipulate world currency with a toxic grandeur Gekko only dreamed of. Again, he has a slightly more honest young striver — Shia LaBeouf, the next-generation Charlie Sheen — primed for a master's instruction and destruction. Moving as fast, boldly and recklessly as a trillion-dollar fat-fingered stock-market transaction, the film has the drive, luxe and sarcastic wit of the snazziest Hollywood movies. To the international audience of money men and critics assembled here, it shows that in the pop-culture business, America is No. 1.

Set mostly in 2008, just before the autumn stock-market crash and its revelations of industry-wide malfeasance, Money Never Sleeps, which opens in the U.S. Sept. 24, is also a parable of sons trying to learn from the triumphs and sins of their fathers. That makes it personal to the three gents at the core of both movies: Stone, who dedicated the original film to his stockbroker father Lou; producer Edward Pressman, whose stepfather was a Manhattan banker; and Douglas, whose career can be seen as a struggle to balance the legacy of his movie-icon dad, the majestically feral Kirk, with his more modulated top-dog persona.

Stone's original exposé of the financial world lucked into a historical moment: it opened two months after the Black Monday stock-market crash. But it might have quickly faded from notoriety to anonymity if the director and writer Stanley Weiser hadn't invented that black knight of finance, Gordon Gekko — and if Douglas, borrowing some of the pile-driving charm from his dad's early gangster roles, hadn't invested the character with such reptilian brio, such pleasure in playing the game and gaming the system. Strutting his boardroom machismo and expectorating such lasting aphorisms as "Lunch is for wimps," "What's worth doing is worth doing for money," "If you need a friend, get a dog" and "Greed ... is good, greed is right, greed works," Gekko was a monster out of Jacobean satire, yet so damned entertaining that the creature became a role model for financial go-getters and the patron saint of investment bankers as the financial sector clawed its way to record profits in the middle years of the last decade.

Marlon Brando once said he hated Stanley Kowalski, his ground-shaking stud in A Streetcar Named Desire, and was disturbed by Stanley's status as an instant icon for postwar machismo. At their press conference today, Douglas and Stone expressed the same baffled annoyance about Gekko's star status. "Oliver and I were both pretty stunned after the first one, how they perceived Gekko," the star said in comments recorded by Sharon Waxman for the Wrap. "An insider trader, a guy who destroyed companies, destroyed people, very well-written villain, and people are attracted to villains. But we never anticipated that all these M.B.A.s would be ranting and raving that this was the person they wanted to be. And yet 22 years later, a lot of those M.B.A. students are heading up these investment-banking companies now, because the greed hasn't stopped — it's since become legal."

The new movie — written by Allan Loeb (chronicler of another white collar scam in 21) and Stephen Schiff (whose script for the 1997 remake of Lolita also deals with a father figure's corruption of the young) — opens in 2001, when Gekko is released from an eight-year prison stretch. At first we see him only as a torso with a heavier gut, being handed his effects from 1993, including a mobile phone the size of LeBron James' sneaker. Like any smart criminal, Gekko writes a best-selling autobiography, less mea culpa than me-a-genius, and revels in his fame as grizzled sage and insult comic. "Money's a bitch that never sleeps, and she's jealous," he tells a rapt crowd of M.B.A. students who are in danger of becoming "the NINJA generation: no income, no job, no assets."

While in the stir, Gordon may have developed a conscience. "It's easy selling crack to kids in the schoolyard," he says of the CDOs and all the other arcane acronyms the Street sold to avaricious, gullible investors. More likely, in his black heart, he simply regrets not having had the imagination and cojones to work those shell-game maneuvers back when he was on top. But he hasn't lost the gift, and by early 2008 he's re-established himself enough to look for his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) and forage for a new dauphin, whom he finds in LaBeouf's Jake Moore.

In the 1987 version, baby bull Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) had to determine his career compass by following either his blue collar dad (real-life father Martin Sheen) or Gekko. This time, three downtown moguls vie to be Jake's mentor and father figure. The first is the man Jake works for: the aging financial boss Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella), instantly pegged as an old-school mensch by his couture — bow tie and suspenders — and his my-word-is-my-bleepin'-bond management style. When Zabel's firm is hobbled by debt and his colleagues in the Wall Street star chamber shut it down à la Lehman Brothers, he steps in front of an onrushing subway train. That gesture impresses Gekko: "No one ever has the balls to commit suicide. It's an honorable thing to do." (In the wake of the 1929 crash, desperate stockbrokers leaped to their deaths out of skyscraper windows. This time, nobody took the fast way to the ground floor; instead, they concocted a government bailout — also shown in the movie, with a Henry Paulson look-alike agreeing to the $700 billion tab — and reaped billions more.)

The second father figure is Gekko, who's set to become Jake's father-in-law, thanks to the lad's betrothal to Winnie — a principled sort who runs a green-leaning website and hates Gordon for letting her drug-addled brother kill himself. And the third is Bretton James (Josh Brolin, yet another son of showbiz royalty), who hires Jake after Zabel's demise puts him out of a job. The chief stud at the Goldman Sachs–like firm of Churchill Schwartz, James has the polish and cold smile of a lizard with a manicure. If Brolin's take on Bush 43 in Stone's W. biopic was muddied, he's pretty perfect here as the embodiment of all the guys who learned how to manipulate the world's money from the School of Gekko. James' most prized possession: a framed Goya sketch of, naturally, Saturn Devouring One of His Children. Except Bretton isn't Saturn; he's Satan.

Stone made his writer-director rep with amped-up screeds on Important Subjects: assassinations (JFK); wars in South America (Salvador) and Southeast Asia (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Heaven and Earth); the mass media's fascination with serial murderers (Natural Born Killers) and right-wing demagoguery (Talk Radio). In the past decade, with Alexander, World Trade Center and W., he calmed down, and his films slumped into a long lull.

Money Never Sleeps slaps his oeuvre back to life. Looking as if it had been made on a budget only Lloyd Blankfein could pony up, the picture (shot by Rodrigo Prieto) has visual zazz in spades. The ribbon of Dow tickers crawls across the actors' faces as if Wall Street were the Matrix. Wretched excess rarely has such a swank face: a Metropolitan Museum charity dinner where all the swindlers gather; Jake's engagement gift to Winnie of a Bulgari diamond Liz Taylor would envy; rich men's toys like motorbikes and crash helmets with Bluetooth. When Stone is not flashing Zabel's ghost on a men's-room wall to haunt Jake's conscience like Christmas Past, he's packing the film with objective correlatives: Zabel speaks of stock bubbles, and we see a kid's soap bubble rising blithely, precariously over Central Park.

As social comedy, the script is best when it's bitter. The first two acts are a splendid vaudeville of fast talking and dirty dealing. At the climax, though, the picture starts flailing toward an old Hollywood happy ending of revenge and redemption, forcing Gekko to commit an act repellent to his nature — a good deed — in his stab at reconstituting his family. The true, bleak worldview of satire would have demanded the abortion of one character's fetus as a final sting and judgment. Instead, the conclusion leaves the main players in place for a Wall Street 3, which Stone has said he's contemplating.

LaBeouf, who seems too seedy and smart to play action heroes in Indiana Jones and Transformers movies, is terrific here as a man who wants to make it big without breaking too many rules. Most other members of the large cast invest themselves fully in the energy and piranhalike appetites of their roles. Only Mulligan, so charming as the precocious teen in An Education, is distressingly wan and weak as the token saint; we'll wait for further films to see which film was the correct clue to her talents.

Douglas, looking more Kirkian than ever, struts through most of the movie having almost too much fun; if he was worried that Gekko would be too appealing, it doesn't show in his born-salesman's smile. But then he has a big scene, in which Gordon confesses to Winnie his despair over the suicide of her drug-addled brother. As he sobbingly takes responsibility for "how many mistakes I made as a father," Douglas boldly merges his character with his personal life. When the actor's son Cameron was recently sentenced to five years in prison for heroin possession and crystal-meth dealing, Douglas owned up to "being a bad father" and added that without going to jail, Cameron "was going to be dead or somebody was going to kill him."

Unlike the first movie, made before the 1987 crash, this Wall Street decries financial chicanery from the ethical altitude afforded by hindsight. Set in 2008, it allows Gekko to speak prescient lines written in 2009 for audiences in 2010. (The film does have one serendipitous subplot: the peddling of offshore oil-drilling leases. Nice timing for the BP scandal, guys.) No deep thoughts here; this is a product of shiny surfaces and snappy patter, the cinematic equivalent of a derivatives offering. But the greed-is-good mantra possesses continued, perhaps eternal relevance, both to Wall Street and to Hollywood. The story of a resourceful entrepreneur trying to walk the line between business and morality — and to connect father to son by any means necessary — is central to another big, bustling movie that premiered this month. In a way, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is the real Iron Man 2.