Friday, February 4, 2011

The Ballad of Rich People

Oliver Stone is arguably well past his career peak. His films haven't received any major award nominations in over fifteen years. Many of his recent titles have barely made back the money spent in making them. W was the presidential film nobody who lived through Dubya's two terms really wanted to see. Alexander was on the same historical fiction plateau as Kingdom of Heaven that filmmakers wanted to create despite nobody filled audience chairs to see them. Any Given Sunday and World Trade Center were successful, but harbor no hopes of being remembered decades from now. No, Oliver Stone will be remembered not for his recent releases, but those released twenty years ago that we still talk about today: titles like JFK, Platoon, and Wall Street. Having not had ample opportunity to make it to the theaters this week (and with few exceptions any reason to go anyway), I dropped by the Redbox and grabbed the sequel to one of Stone's classics Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, taking the chance to catch a film I'd missed last year in the theaters. Though I've never seen the original, this seemed ample opportunity to catch up on the role that won Michael Douglas his Academy Award, and the trailer had been appealing enough to me that I was sure I didn't need to see the original to understand what was going on.

Didn't I see this the same street on Sex and the City?
WSMNS is a revenge tale set astride a backdrop of the current global recession. After eight years of imprisonment for insider trading and securities fraud, Gordon Gekko (Douglas) is released from prison in 2001. Fast forward seven years, and Gekko has become a best-selling author and celebrity lecturer, his face all over CNN and any major network that will have him. Meanwhile, Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf) is doing well as an investment banker with Keller Zabel (KZI), a major Wall Street bank. He may be relatively wealthy, but he has good influences in his life, like his girlfriend (and Gekko's estranged daughter) Winnie (Carrie Mulligan), a successful blogger and social activist. He is also raising money for his pet project, a green energy company. All in all, he's a good kid. That changes when  That changes overnight when KZI, which had apparently been just treading water, finally goes under. A bailout to get the company back on track fails thanks to rival banker (Josh Brolin) and with the company in ruins, Jake teams up with Gekko to try and strike back at the man who destroyed Jake's company.

In an attempt to make them more sympathetic, Stone put them on a train. Genius!
If it all seems overly simplistic, that's because I haven't explained everything. There's a LOT going on in the plot, mostly involving character development over moving the actual story forward. This is a positive turn, as far too often character development can be strewn along the wayside in making a concise story, easily followed by the audience. Unfortunately, the story itself is not as good as the characters portrayed, and while the backdrop especially is relevant to the issues we face today, the fact that this story is told from the perspective of which collar rich folk dulls the impact for the average viewer somewhat. Even the poorest characters in the film are a Blogger who racks up fifty times more hits daily than I've had for the entire run on my blog and an author whose media attention is more than that of Steven Levitt and Ben Mezrich COMBINED. Even though some of their causes are noble, not one character's motivation isn't to be wealthier than they currently are.

Brolin still has the occasional Jonah Hex flashback
The acting is pretty amazing here. Of course most of the attention (and rightfully so) has fallen on the shoulders of Douglas, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his reprisal of the inimitable Gekko. Though it's been more than twenty years since he played this role, Douglas took to it like a second skin, adding bits of new to the comfortable layers of greed and manipulation that he's famous for. Most notable is his desire to reconnect with his daughter. LaBoeuf is surprisingly good as the story's protagonist, Jake. I say "surprisingly" even though he's been good in the few things I've actually seen him in. I guess it's more his choice of movies that puts me off, from Disturbia to Eagle Eye to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. These are NOT good movies, but LaBoeuf is a good performer, and as a good-hearted conniver who sees everything spiral out of control around him, It's easy to forget how privileged he is when you see how hard he works and his faith in good will. I didn't see An Education, so this was the first film I've seen Carrie Mulligan in, and she's also quite good. Torn between her social ethics, the man she loves and the father she can't forgive, she's probably the most sympathetic character in this tale. Brolin once again rides high on his late-career surge, this time as the film's main antagonist. While Brolin does a good job overall, his role is perhaps a tad oversimplified and while still a serious threat, not one you can't imagine being overcome. Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon appear in the film also, and though Langella's role is somewhat on the smallish side as Jake's boss and mentor, he does a good job early on setting the table for the rest of the film. Sadly, Sarandon is a cipher as Jake's real estate investor mother and hence cannot add a lot to the small role she has been assigned.

Obviously never told not to sit with his eyes that close to the screen
For what the original film represents, it's almost too bad this sequel wasn't better reviewed upon release. Then again, since the original existed in Stone's "golden age", it simply simply be that this new film is nowhere near the quality of the first. That wouldn't be surprising, especially given Stone's propensity for visual elements, such as the NYC skyline overlaid with a stock price chart. Stunts like that alone wouldn't be bad, but Stone seems to enjoy doing things like this a bit too much, since every time there's a break in the story, he fills the void with endless similar visual trickery as a bridge. At best, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a timely, relevant look at the market crash through the eyes of those directly involved, a great exercise in character development, and hosts at least good performances from all involved, and a great one from Michael Douglas. At its worst you have largely useless characters, meandering plot threads and unnecessary twists that make the finale predictable and anti-climactic. In the end, I liked this film, though I feel my appreciation for it would dwindle were I to revisit the original. Stone might no longer be at his peak, but if this is the standard fare he introduces these days, I certainly won't reject any future films of his out of hand.

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