Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Welcome to the Club

Marking Oliver Stone's first sequel in his filmography, I guess it's almost unavoidable to say no when there's money to be made, especially since opportunity presented itself to revisit iconic characters and see how a story can develop if transplanted from the 80s to 2008, just before the financial meltdown put the world on its knees, where like Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) remarks, Greed has now become legal. I've always enjoyed how Oliver Stone cuts and thrusts in making his points across, and this is never more pronounced than in this film, aptly subtitled Money Never Sleeps.

Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, this film had more relevance to me since the original in the 80s was made when I was a kid, and comparing the severity of the greed of man now and then, it made the old Gordon Gekko and what he did with insider trading look like a walk in the park and taking candy from a kid. Here, the severity of the entire issue of a dysfunctional financial system that we have lived through becomes far more complex which have resulted in the bankers in the sector becoming obscenely rich and morally bankrupt, and the ordinary folk bearing a double whammy brunch of this irresponsibility through the almost magical vanishing of their funds, and the decision to use public funds to bail these people and their institutions out is the lesser of two evils.

Money Never Sleeps succinctly wrapped up the recession of our recent times, with the collapse of a trusted, mammoth investment banks (hint), the dog-eat-dog world of the inner financial circle, and how the entire sub-prime nonsense which preyed on everyone's insatiable greed, prove to be everyone's downfall in a buyer's beware market, if only things were that clear especially when rumours are used as tools and weapons to mislead and force a predictable outcome through which to hedge funds on. There were many instances with the release of Gordon from his jail sentence, where his second career as a writer/sought after speaker (only in America folks) brought about opportunities for the character to serve as a mouthpiece of caution in today's world.

There's a new protagonist in the film in Jake Moore, played by Shia LaBeouf, who's very much into alternative energy markets and has a hand in the investment and development of one such nuclear fusion farm. Unfortunately the investment bank he works in goes belly up causing the demise of his much respected mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), Jake swears revenge against Josh Brolin's Bretton James, another head honcho banker in a rival firm, and if you've not been listening attentively, or are not remotely familiar with the financial terms being mouthed around, you're more than likely to find it hard pressed how this link was made to position Jake and Bretton as rivals.

Gordon Gekko enters the picture because of Jake's fiance Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gekko's daughter, and through a potential in-law relation, both men who see so much similarities in each other, especially the older in the younger's fire in the belly, forge a trade of sorts where Gekko provides much needed inside research and knowledge to Jake in exchange for opportunities set up to reconcile with his estranged daughter. And of course, a leopard never changes its spots, and despite warnings from Winnie, we're left to expect how Gordon will actually screw them all over, if he does decide to put aside family bonds.

In many instances of relationships here involving Jake and his peers on the Street such as Louis, Gordon and Bretton, there's this hark back to the Dark Side in Star Wars where each master keeps only one protege to induct into the evil side of things, and each of these relationships are very pronounced in showing that. Of course one has to demonstrate enough rottenness and ruthlessness in order to be spotted for further grooming, and I found it mildly amusing it had to boil down to that. More interesting would be the fact that they're maneuvering in grounds that are set up for such unethical behaviour that it'll either surprise you that such moves are possible, or make you resign to the fact that it's life.

Shia LaBeouf probably benefitted from not being overexposed, especially with bad films, and Oliver Stone probably elicited one of his best performances here, which is subdued rather than the smart-alecky young adult he usually plays. Here he's more a deer caught in the headlights as a greenhorn yet to but eager to earn his stripes as he goes headlong against seasoned players. Unfortunately for Carey Mulligan, her Winnie role isn't all that fleshed out, being just the romantic lead opposite Shia (which became real for all you tabloid followers out there) and her reconciliatory difficulties with her dad. Perhaps the only bright spark in her character is that she epitomizes free press/speech in the form of a non-profit, independent website out to provide stinging exposes, which has a purpose of course in the last act, like a torchbearer for Stone to champion freedom of speech to bring down the corrupt.

Josh Brolin had starred in Stone's previous film W as the ex US president, and here he becomes chief antagonist with great ambition and is behind every shady deal, that you can't help on one hand to hate this guy, while on the other admire his brilliance to exploit with confidence every loophole in the legal and financial system. Villains have seldom looked that suave in a tuxedo hiding behind arrogant smirks. Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko seemed to have mellowed, though yet having enough scenes to spout soundbites and through the narrative, makes you wonder if he's really reformed and out to make peace, or still has that shrewd streak within him, waiting like a coiled snake ready to strike another blow in the markets. Rounding up the star studded billing is Susan Sarandon as Jake's mother, a real estate agent caught up with multiple housing mortgages and serving as the precursor to inevitable trouble.

Rumoured to have had its ending edited after reactions in Cannes, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps hit plenty of right spots in delivering a relevant followup film on the financial markets of today. For a fictional film it's rather insightful in its ability to bring forth real issues and ideas to the mass market, and I enjoyed its subplot suggesting how the rich can bury innovation should those breakthroughs threaten the well being of their cash cow commodities, where short term billion dollar gains to these folks far outweigh the benefits and greater good for mankind in general. Think about how alternative fuels have always stagnated, or why the electric car had failed to take off. Highly recommended for an all round great film!

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