Saturday, September 25, 2010

One Scene in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a flawed movie. Gordon Gekko gets out of prison, turns ruthless money-monger once again, and then turns loving family man. Meanwhile, at times, the movie becomes a Michael Moore-type muckraking documentary about the excesses of the economic collapse. Perhaps that’s the film Oliver Stone wanted to make.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is also a silly movie. Stone uses children’s soap bubbles as a symbol of the recent bursting of the economic bubble. A mere glimpse of this image might have been clever. But the camera follows a single bubble up and up and up, making sure we get the point of this simplistic symbolism, and the bubbles come back AGAIN at the end of the movie. Also, the cameo appearances of Charlie Sheen as Bud Fox, his face pasty, his acting horrid, and of Oliver Stone himself as a sort of documentary-style talking head, are simply ludicrous.

Any strength in this film can be found in some of the cinematography (a shot of the Empire State Building through nighttime mist that is to die for) and in the performances of Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan. As Jake Moore, a hotshot investor who is snared by the allure of the devious Gordon Gekko, LaBeouf proves he can take on a mature roll and that he is not just an unlikely boyfriend for Jennifer Fox in an action movie with more explosions than World War II. As Winnie Gekko, Gordon’s estranged daughter, Jake’s social activist fiancé, Mulligan negotiates a tricky role with conviction and presence.

But the purpose of this post is not to analyze this film as a whole, partly because I am at a loss when it comes to explaining the economic strategies employed by characters to ruin other characters. I’m not a Wall Street expert – never have been. In fact, I wasn’t a big fan of the original Wall Street, and I would be unable to explain exactly what Gekko and Bud Fox do to make thier big bucks. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the economic chicanery is even more elusively explained. All I can say is big bad Bretton James, played by Josh Brolin, ruins poor old Louis Zabel, played by Frank Langella, and then Jake turns around and tries to ruin James, and then Gekko ruins James, but I can’t explain how they do it. How money works is a mystery to me probably because I don’t have enough to worry about the clever tricks I could be doing with it if I had it.

No, the purpose of this post is actually to praise one single scene that I think suggests one of Stone’s strengths and hints at the potential for a better film about the excesses of money-mongers, post-9/11 or otherwise.

The scene takes place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the rich and well heeled are dining at a $10,000 dollar-a-plate banquet for some cause. That the persons who attend this function have the cash to spend on dinner is shown in the self-satisfied way they enter the museum like wealthy first class passengers strutting aboard the Titanic. Stone treats us to wonderful long shots of this set piece scene, as the gaudy music and the shots of the dancing couples seem to suggest ballroom scenes in films like Gone with the Wind and War and Peace in which the wealthy, clad in their finest, dance gracefully oblivious to the stark contrast of those poor wretches outside the ballroom who have not. In a wonderful tracking shot, the camera moves from woman to woman, and it is quickly apparent that Stone is not zeroing in on beautiful faces. He’s zeroing in on fat earrings and brilliant necklaces and rings heavy with costly gems. The point is obvious. Like the graceful, merry English couples dancing on the eve of Waterloo, these privileged ones are ostentatiously displaying their opulence on the eve of a disaster, and in this case, it is a disaster that they have caused. This scene shows Stone’s talent for historical epics. He could make a film about Gilded Age tycoons feasting and prancing while the Other Side grovel in grim Jacob Riss poverty outside, and brooding anarchists plot assassinations and explosions in protest. (He could even make a historical film about the recent collapse that is more powerful than Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which comes off as a superficial Wall Street action movie.) Now, that is an epic I’d love to see. Wall Street and Gordon Gekko? I could care less.


Unknown said...

I dunno. I liked this film. Was it great? No. But I thought it was decent enough. Certainly the best thing Stone has done since ANY GIVEN SUNDAY. Of course, that's not saying much at least it felt on this film that he actually gave a crap and was on familiar turf which helped. But, yet again, the loss of long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson can be felt in every frame of this film. Those two really brought out the best in each other.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, J.D.. As for this movie's cinematography, there is that one shot of the Empire State and there's an interesting shot of Jake walking in front of a huge wall of glass that looks out on what I'm guessing is Ground Zero plaza, but other than that the cinematography was pretty utilitarian. The movie as a whole was decent at times - but not decent enough to engage me sufficiently.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for your comment, Juvin. Glad you liked this movie. I guess there is emotional strength in the portrayal of the relationship between Jake and Winnie. I just didn't find the financial intrigue that compelling.

Eli Wallach certainly had a strange role. The whispery, bird-tweeting noises he made certainly were appropriate as an implication of how nutty some of these money-mongers were.

Joel Bocko said...

Very fun review - I like the original Wall Street a lot but am skeptical about this one. Stone seems to have a penchant for biting off more than he can chew these days, though it's nice to see a filmmaker actually concerned about commenting on the times (even if such things don't turn out well). I remember enjoying W. in 2008; I wonder what I'd think if I re-watched it now.

Your description of Stone's goofier tactics remind me of the recent Will Ferrel-Mark Wahlberg buddy cop movie, which inexplicably ended with endless graphics and statistics waxing hysterical about the greed of CEOs. Please Hollywood, spare us the canned populism - we know which side you're really on... (a bit different with Stone, who's an individualistic auteur, though it sounds like he stumbled just as badly. Kids' bubbles? Jeez...)

Richard Bellamy said...

I'm with you, MovieMan. I like where Stone is coming from - even though his recent films aren't as effective as his earlier ones. I liked W. It was a great portrayal of that era. I wished, however, that it had been even more epic - throw in a gritty battle scene in Iraq showing young Americans dying horribly while Bush eats barbecue or goes duck hunting or something. The movie had some punch but it just didn't have the powerful punch it could have had.

Do older filmmakers known for their clout (Stone, Scorsese, etc.) feel they have to soften their clout in order to be safe for the people buying tickets at the box office - who seem to be preferring less powerful stuff these days? "Oh, very sad."*

*One of my favorite lines ever delivered by John Wayne - from The Comancheros.