Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a bold, visually stunning movie and the best critique of the capitalist system and its 2008 financial meltdown since Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. It opens with uber-financier Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) release from prison, where he has served around eight years for insider trading and other crimes he perpetrated in Stone’s 1987 Wall Street classic. This sequel, which is probably superior to the original, follows Gekko as he tries to re-establish himself in the world of high finance – where, Gekko observes, “greed got greedier” — and in his daughter Winnie’s (Carey Mulligan) life.
The film explores whether Gekko’s imprisonment has humanized the “Greed is good” guru, and follows Winnie’s relationship with Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf), a Wall Street trader who walks a tightrope between the type of predatory capitalism epitomized by his would-be father-in-law and a deep interest in green energy. Jake encounters another archetypal robber baron, Bretton James (played by Josh Brolin – a bit of canny casting, as he starred as one of the culprits of 2008’s economic catastrophe, that fiscal fiasco George W. Bush, in Stone’s 2008 W.), who is sort of the Reagan era Gekko on 21st century steroids. At one point Bretton asks the alternative energy-touting Jake if he’s “an idealist or a capitalist?” Meanwhile, capitalism collapses around the characters.
The superb cast includes Frank Langella, whose previous star turns as Dracula and Tricky Dick (he was Oscar-nominated for 2008’s Frost/ Nixon) provided basic training for Langella’s portrayal of Louis Zabel, head of the doomed Keller Zabel Investments. (To be fair, unlike the Prince of Darkness or the disgraced ex-president, Zabel is actually human.) Venerable thespian Eli Wallach whimsically portrays another Wall Street veteran, who can remember the 1929 stock market crash. Oscar winner Susan Sarandon embodies Americans living beyond their means, depicting Jake’s mother Sylvia, a nurse (who, her son muses, used to save lives) turned realtor who is ensnared in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Sylvia Miles, who hilariously hustled Jon Voight’s male hustler in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and played a realtor 23 years ago in the original Wall Street, is back for some more real estate wheeling, dealing and wheedling in the sequel, which includes cameo appearances by the original’s co-star, Charlie Sheen, and by Stone himself, who is glimpsed onscreen a la Alfred Hitchcock.
Douglas is best of all in a stellar performance, reprising his Gekko part with a commanding presence that is absolutely guaranteed to win him an Oscar nomination – and, I predict, another Oscar for portraying Gekko. This would be a first for the Academy: Actors such as Raymond Massey portrayed abolitionist John Brown in 1940’s Santa Fe Trail and 1955’s Seven Angry Men, as well as Honest Abe in 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois (for which Massey received his sole Best Actor nom), in a 1950 TV production of the same name plus in 1962’s How the West Was Won. Janet Gaynor andJudy Garland and Frederic March and James Mason were nominated for playing the same parts in the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star is Born but none of them struck Oscar gold. Bing Crosby won the Best Actor Academy Award for 1944’s Going My way, and was nominated the following year for again playing Father Chuck O’Malley in The Bells of St. Mary’s, but did not win. Larry Parks was nominated for 1946’s The Jolson Story, but did not win the Best Actor Oscar, nor was he nominated for its 1949 sequel.
Paul Newman got nominated for playing Fast Eddie Felson in 1961’s The Hustler, but won for reprising his role as the pool hall sharpshooter in 1986’s The Color of Money. (As I recall Oscar had stood the oft-nommed Newman up so often he was a no show at the ceremony where he finally won.) Peter O’Toole was nominated twice for playing King Henry II — in 1964’s Becket and 1968’s The Lion in Winter – winning for neither. During the 1970s Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro both won Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars for portraying Don Corleone in The Godfather and its sequel. Cate Blanchett was twice nominated for Best Actress for playing Queen Elizabeth in 1998’s Elizabeth and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and also nominated in 2007 for Best Supporting Actress as Bob Dylan (!) in 2007’s I’m Not There, but did not win that coveted golden statuette for either part.
So if Douglas wins a second Oscar for portraying Gekko – which I predict he will – he’ll make Academy Award history. (By the way, the closest thing to this is Harold Russell, the real life disabled vet who won both a Best Supporting Oscar and an Honorary Oscar for playing Homer Parrish, a handless, wounded veteran in 1946’s The Best Years of Their Lives.)
Another point regarding casting: Although all of Money’s major characters are white, Stone has an eye for sexy, elegant Asian, Latina and a sprinkling of Black background beauties who punctuate Money. Stone also has a cinematic eye, and New York hasn’t looked this glorious since Woody Allen’s 1979 Manhattan. Stone strikingly, filmically visualizes the stock market’s machinations. There are also eye catching movie metaphors, in particular the filmmaker’s use of bubbles.
In his previous film, 2010’s South of the Border, Stone examines the phenomenon of what Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chavez calls “21st century socialism.” (The DVD will be released by Cinema Libre Studios on Oct. 26.) Now, in this bookend movie, Stone examines modern corporate capitalism in Money, placing it under a Sherlock Holmes-like magnifying glass. The feature correctly, insightfully observes that more profit is derived from financial services than production in contemporary America. (A recent issue of the longtime independent socialist magazine Monthly Review ran a story on how capitalists in the financial sector have – given the fact that the only things Made In USA nowadays are weaponry and mass entertainment — surpassed the traditional industrial bourgeoisie as the ruling class’ dominant faction. Does anybody really think this decline in manufacturing is economically sustainable?) This film is a perfect goodbye gift for Larry Summers, as this pro-corporate wrecker of the American economy leaves his post on Pres. Obama’s mostly woe-begotten team of economic mis-advisers. Their departures are eloquent admissions of the failures of their idiotic policies – as if letting the foxes in the henhouses has ever worked as a crime-fighting tactic. Don’t let the screen door hit your ass on your way out of the White House, Larry!
Wall Street II is much more than simply a sequel, it is an original work of art that stands on its own, even as it draws from the original source. Unlike, say, bonehead Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks, this is much more than a mere money-making franchise (even if Gekko might wish otherwise, LOL). Oliver Stone, the director of the 1980s Vietnam masterpieces Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July 1991’s JFK, etc., is at the top of his game, and I predict many well-deserved Academy Award nominations for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps – if not an Oscar gold rush. Don’t miss it – and don’t miss my interview with Stone in the September issue of The Progressive Magazine. (Say, if you can’t give yourself a shameless plug when reviewing a movie about capitalism, when can you?)
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”