The most common and enduring misconception about Oliver Stone is that his is a political filmmaker. This is true only insofar as he has made political films. But even when he chooses to focus on a political topic, he rarely rips stories from the headlines: his first two presidential movies were hardly topical, his World Trade Center movie made half a decade after the fact and, if anything, he jumped the gun on his Bush movie.
Instead, Stone is an emotional filmmaker, and if what's nagging at his soul should occasionally match up to the times -- as it did with Natural Born Killers and the first Wall Street -- then all the better. What motivated JFK was a lingering feeling of confusion and anguish, the attempt by a child to find the truth of his dad's murder. World Trade Center tried, unsuccessfully, to recapture that feeling of unity created by the tragedy of 9/11. Nixon was an inevitably Shakespearean look at our vilest president, but it also understood the creepy aura of Nixon enough to make you reach for your back pocket to make sure the oily snake hadn't swiped it. Finally, with W., Stone seemed to say that all you could do with the previous administration was laugh.
What is most surprising about Wall Street 2, saddled with the unfortunate subtitle "Money Never Sleeps," is how well it refrains from anger. With Stone relying more on his notoriety off the set in the past decade than his skill behind a camera, supporters and detractors expected him to be out for blood. The original Wall Street was more comedic than anything, though its warning was clear. No one heeded it, so Stone clearly brought Gordon Gekko out of his cage to say, "I told you so," right?
Instead, the prevalent mood is despair. Stone doesn't approach the meltdown from the outrage that came later. He taps into bewilderment and panic of the moment with more believability than he did the equalizing grief of September 11. None of the characters is even a member of the middle class; they all live in expansive New York lofts that cost more than the lifetime earnings of the average American even in peak economic years, and they all turn their considerable amounts of money into yet more money. Yet even these people, the architects of the Great Recession, do not understand the hole they've dug for themselves and, when the time comes, they seem as lost and overwhelmed as the rest of us did.
Stone opens with a clever visual gag of Gekko being released from prison just after the Sept. 11 attacks as a guard hands him his personal effects, among them a 1987 cell phone that lands on the desk with a dull, deep thud as if the officer had broken out an old family Bible. But the true genius of the scene is the linking of Gekko with his release date. It was in the wake of 9/11 that the government lowered the interest rate to encourage people to start spending again -- I can still remember my mom telling me the morning of Sept. 11 that the stock market had crashed because some loon on the TV was panicking. If Gekko was the symbol of Reagan-era greed, then his release from prison signals the rebirth of the unchecked money worship and deregulatory practices that made Reaganomics look so good on paper until anyone bothered to look into it.
Seven years later, the economy has begun to sag but has given no outward indication of collapse. Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young proprietary trader who works for the investment firm Keller Zabel. Ambitious even in his pre-teen years, Jake has already risen to a position of prominence within the company, and when his boss and mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) calls the young man into his office, the partner hands him a bonus check for $1.5 million. Yet the old man's mood is troubled, and his unexplained concern finds a possible explanation when one of Jake's friends attempts to talk him out of reinvesting that money in the firm's stock based on rumors of hidden debt. Jake doesn't listen, but the next day, Keller Zabel stock begins to plummet.
If the original Wall Street was rooted in the pandemonium of the stock market floor, only occasionally moving into the backrooms where insider trading tips where issued for those desk jockeys on the floor. But the modern economic system is more complicated and more audacious; now, insider trading might as well be liquor store robbery, something for plebs like Martha Stewart to do. No, the spawn of Gekko found ways to make more and more money with even wilder schemes, and they think their Gordian knot will never been unraveled. What they neglected to consider is that someone or something could come by and simply cut the rope.
That rope then becomes a noose, and the other investment firms quickly fall upon Keller Zabel so that the example made of it will satisfy public outrage in case the rest of the banks need federal help in the future. Louis, ousted from the company he founded and shortchanged by the young, sinister leader of Churchill Schwartz, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), cannot cope with the shame, and he throws himself under a bus. As Gekko says later, he's the only person responsible for the crash to do so.
Lost without his guide, Jake gravitates to Gekko and convinces the man to take him in by telling him the truth: Jake is marrying Gordon's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Seemingly eager to reconcile with his child, Gordon starts to advise Jake. Without marking a clear point of departure, Stone sets to work peeling back the layers of false charity of both characters: Gordon carries something of a grudge for being abandoned by his own family, while Jake plies tips for getting revenge against Bretton James for Louis' death.
Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff's script comes loaded with over-the-top hunks of dialogue -- even LaBeouf has come out embarrassed by the line "Take a look in the mirror. See yourself. It might scare you" -- but Stone deftly mixes the motivations of the characters, never straying from greed as the central motive but demonstrating how multi-layered that sin can be. James bets against debts and wagers his own money behind the scenes to make billions, the gentler Louis still conceals his losses to maintain the illusion, Gordon wants to prove he can remake himself from nothing, Jake checks his idealism for clean energy by musing on how much money he'll make, and his mother (Susan Sarandon) quit her job as a nurse to make a more lucrative living on the housing market. Even Winnie has her ambition, courting investors for her left-wing blog and always searching to break a story that will win her massive page hits and bigger advertising.
In some of these cases, greed is not altogether bad. Jake's desire to find the next big bubble could break the world of oil dependency, while Winnie's quest for page hits stems from a drive to be a serious journalist and to make amends for her father's actions. Yet the bond that links them makes the economic downfall so overwhelming: greed might not necessarily be evil, but it exposes itself fully as destructive in the recession, leaving these people of various morality collectively lost as if a hive mind was suddenly broken.
The bewilderment of these characters in facing this revelation matched my own inability to believe that Oliver Stone could take such an angle. While his more earnest side was visible in the equally surprising Nixon, Stone's -- dare I say -- maturity makes up for the cliché of the script, which falls into one too many romantic drama pitfalls in the Jake/Winnie relationship and routinely changes Gordon around in ways that transcend his duplicitous nature and simply come off as writing to fit a scene instead of a character. Also helping is Stone's direction, which is more measured than his work during his '80s and '90s gold run yet more exciting than anything he's done in years. The opening credits end with a shot that spirals upward across the block of office buildings on Wall Street that makes place seem like a fortress. Later, as Louis walks in the park in a worry, children in the background blow bubbles, and Stone tracks one as it floats briefly, clearly tying this literal bubble to the metaphorical one that just burst back at Keller Zabel. As Stone tracks the bubble, you can practically see the dreams it contains, and you wonder what will happen when it pops.
Best of all, Stone finally gets back to getting consistently great work from his actors. Stories have already leaked about the director's pomposity on the set, but there's no denying that he got great performances across the board even if he should have paid attention to some of the cast's issues with the dialogue. Brolin doesn't match the greatness of his previous work with Stone, but he makes a terrific villain out of James to fill the gap by Gordon becoming an antihero. He isn't slimy like Gekko, just arrogant; to look at him is to see the change in Wall Street, where people now go to even more extreme lengths to make money that they care less for than the Gekkos of the world. Mulligan worked with Stone to make her character more than just the hang-on girlfriend and, even though she's saddled with all the worst aspects of the film's narrative, she succeeds in making something of what is still a fairly thankless role. LaBeouf shines here as Jake, emotional when he should be, intimidatingly conniving beyond his years. He just excels here and makes a fantastic case for being taken seriously as an actor and not the "No no no!" guy.
And yet, of course, the main draw is Michael Douglas. In the 23 years since the first Wall Street, Douglas' body has come to resemble Gekko's soul. His reptilian eyes are now set in a face that looks like that of an iguana or a chameleon, a leathery hide that cannot quite conceal the depths of his hatred for the world that let him rot in prison for what he maintains was a "victimless crime." When he softens at the mention of his daughter, Gordon retains his edge and hints at the ulterior motives driving him. Douglas certainly has no shortage of slimeball roles in the interim between Wall Streets, but he seems to relish being back in the character that cemented his reputation as a world-class asshole (I mean this genuinely in the most positive of ways). Watch the scene that involves a cameo by Bud Fox from the first Wall Street. It's a completely unnecessary scene, frankly, but Douglas' acting makes it into one of the most memorable moments of the film. As Fox gently derides his old boss, Gordon stands there and takes it, but when Bud gives him a mock-friendly pat on the shoulder, a muscle just above Douglas' mouth twitches, a crack in the dike holding back Gordon's murderous rage. That almost imperceptible moment gives the scene a dramatic edge it does not deserve, and it's proof that Douglas is still one of the best actors around and we should all hope and pray that he recovers from his illness.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps does not reach the heights of Stone's best work, but it shows the director finally grabbing onto the material with both hands and steering it to intriguing and thought-provoking places. With a terrific cast and a refined take on his exhilarating direction, Stone overcomes the handful of glaring problems that plague the script. Instead of shaking his fist, Stone takes to the enraging issue of the economic crisis and the causes of it with a grace he has not previously displayed. It's anyone's guess whether the director will continue this rejuvenation or if the planets merely aligned one last time, but Wall Street surely ranks as one of the most unexpected pleasures of the year. I never thought I'd be so pleased to see Stone keep his polemical side in the cage.