Oscar-winner Oliver Stone’s new film “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is a dark, prophetic masterpiece showcasing some of the best acting this year -- and some of the weakest. It is profoundly disappointing because its premise forgoes morality and any consequences of the evolutionary inevitability of capitalism’s dominance over our humanity.
In a way it mourns transcendence. Money may never sleep, and human nature, despite our best impulses, cannot stand up to the temptation to fill up our barn banks with treasures that will not last. Someone declares early on in the movie that the most insidious aspect of our economic system is speculation and the film proceeds to prove it.
Michael Douglas reprises his role as amoral moneyman Gordon Gekko, who was arrested for insider trading and other federal offences at the end of the 1987 film “Wall Street.” But he has had some priority adjustments; time is now more important than money. He steps away from his old catch phrase “greed is good.” Now it’s actually all really about “the game,” as he tells his future son-in-law Jake Moore, played by Shia LaBeouf.
Jake is an ambitious day trader in love with Winnie, Gekko’s daughter (Carey Mulligan.) She runs a non-profit news website. She has refused to see her father since his release from prison but Jake goes behind her back and makes contact when Gordon publishes his book about greed.
All of this takes place just as the 2008 Wall Street meltdown occurs. More than anything, the film frames the crash and explains the causes to us through meetings between investment houses that are “too big to fail” and representatives from the Federal Reserve. As the key figures declare or imply by their actions, “it’s unethical but not illegal.”
Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) is Jake’s mentor, and the head of Keller Zabel, a Lehman Brothers type firm. He’s an older man and can’t quite follow how profiting from debt is making money but he senses that everything is going down. The president of a rival firm, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), starts rumors about the instability of Zabel’s company while secretly investing in its failure both personally and through his own firm. Zabel commits suicide and Jake gets revenge on James by starting a rumor about his firm which then crashes and needs the biggest bailout in U.S. history.
Jake doesn’t profit from Bretton James’ failure but he has committed a felony, Gekko informs him. Then Jake, Gekko, and Winnie make an investment that starts the roller coaster ride down Wall Street and through their lives all over again.
But as the story gets more complicated we never get the feeling that Jake lacks a financial safety net of some kind. Winnie has her own secrets. And Gordon is still a reptile.
(The character’s names are interesting: Gekko is a lizard, Moore is more, and Winnie wins.)
The dialogue offers us some wisdom such as “Bulls and bears make profit but pigs get slaughtered.” And the song “Tiny Apocalypse“ by David Byrne plays through a sequence like the sad voice of a universal conscience.
Jake recalls that Einstein once said that the greatest insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and to expect different results -- but he says it more for our benefit than his own.
The most searing catch phrase in the film to me was “personalize profit but socialize loss.” Yeah, well, Wall Street certainly got that one right.
By the end, I didn’t really care about any of the characters in this film. They are still standing and walking free. The characters have gone through events, but no one really changes or learns a life lesson. We never see the effect of the 2008 crash on anyone except Jake’s mother (Susan Sarandon) who gives up her failing real estate business to return to nursing -- at Jake’s insistence because he is tired of bailing her out. “You used to do something that mattered!” Jake tells her.
Jake doesn’t even listen to himself. But maybe that’s the point.
Is this unsatisfying feeling the result of a bad script? I think it was intentional by writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff. Loeb gave us the underappreciated 2007 film “Things We Lost in the Fire” that shows he understands what really matters.
Dramatically and emotionally, I wanted someone to get angry about what was happening to the U.S. economy, and by extension, the world because of the impact of the 2008 crash and chaos. Jake screams at his mom and makes her tow the line, mimicking, I think, what we heard so often about the crash being the fault of consumers getting into debt, spending what they didn’t have, etc. There is not much responsibility laid at Wall Street’s door in this film. It’s like one big inside joke that never gets a laugh. The movie highlights the transparent superficiality of the system and arrogance of people who run it.
“Money Never Sleeps” shows the black ice that our prosperity as a nation travels on. It’s a warning straight out of Dickens but without a happy ending for the poor and comeuppance for the perpetrators. Sure, Bretton James gets hauled away to jail, but he is not changed; he’s just sorry he got caught.
When or how will it all end?
Oliver Stone doesn’t want us to like these characters and what they do.
At the end of the movie the credits roll over close-ups of our paper currency. Amidst the eyes of dead presidents and patriots, the printed words “In God We Trust” on the bills change to “In Greed We Trust.”
That’s pretty cynical.