Fans of Oliver Stone’s classic “Wall Street” will inevitably cite Gordon Gekko’s famous speech about greed as the quintessential moment of the film—it’s a vicious diatribe delivered by the silver-tongued, ethically indifferent 80’s anti-hero. The speech perhaps represents a work of art encapsulating the zeitgeist of a decade more perfectly than any film of the past 30 years. It also makes it no surprise that Stone’s interest in revisiting the character was stirred by the financial panic, instability, and controversial recovery of the past five years. As a sequel to his landmark film (some would argue his masterwork, though it’s hard to ignore “Platoon”), WS:MNS is little more than a shadow of former glory, though in its best moments Stone is able to recapture the raw energy and intensity of the original film’s unforgiving and intimidating look at life on the most unforgiving street in America (I mean that figuratively; no need to fill the comments section with your thoughts on my insensitivity to inner city strife).
Such moments are scattered throughout the film’s run time, but ultimately there are too few of them, and worse, their presence at times only serve as a reminder of what this movie could have been instead of what it is—a needlessly sentimental love story crossed with an arms’ length examination of Gekko as a father figure (an element of his character which the first film wisely took no interest in). The result is a film which never seems to quite leave the starting line despite a few invigorating warm-up stretches which fool you into thinking you’re in for quite a race.
The film’s best scenes take place in the atmospheric near-dark of a board room where the irresponsible and defiant heads of failing banks sit on one side smugly demanding aid from baffled and overwhelmed government officials on the other. The dialogue here is terse and angry and electric with an energy which effectively mirrors the national dialogue that took place as the same real-life events unfolded. One elderly banker resorts to sub-verbal whistling noises and hand gestures to explain exactly what’s to become of the economy as the banks fail—the type of little touch that would have made for a memorable moment had it been part of a better film. Unfortunately, Stone doesn’t seem to realize he’s holding lightning in a bottle and punctuates the film only twice with these intense, politically and economically fascinating interactions.
He seems afraid to pull the camera from his young co-stars, despite the fact that their improbable romance (Jake is an up-and-comer in a huge investment firm who has somehow won the heart of one Winnie Gekko, who is supposedly the living antithesis of up-and-comers in huge investment firms). Their love affair seems silly given her aversion to the lifestyle which he clearly embraces, and though the two characters joke incessantly about this, the film doesn’t seem to feel the need to present a viable reason why we should buy into a relationship built on a foundation with a crack in it the size of the Grand Canyon. It only adds to the dull fatalistic nature of their story: Of course they break up because of these differences and of course they will eventually be okay because they have more in common than we thought they did. To be fair, Shia LaBeouf is quite intriguing as Jake (if a little overzealous at moments) and Carey Mulligan manages to be likeable despite subscribing to Katie Holmes’ acting method (the first rule of which is apparently “Great actresses only emote with one side of their face”).
Unfortunately, neither is given much to do that’s of genuine interest—Jake is quite interesting for a while as an investment savant who is taking his firm by storm and even rattling some cages he shouldn’t even be within reach of when his opponents try to interfere with him, but all of this is cast aside in order to deal with his desire to reunite Winnie with her father despite the clarity of her assertion that she has no interesting in this whatsoever.
Consider more closely the story which is cast aside in favor of this odd little family reunion ploy: Jake is putting all of his eggs in the basket of one alternative energy firm which he truly believes—and keep in mind he’s all about the dollar bottom line—is on the verge of the next big breakthrough in how we produce the nation’s energy. Combined with the financial shakeup, there couldn’t be a more fitting duo of hot-button issues for a film representing the past half decade than a story about a Wall Street man trying to use capitalism to profit from and enhance an alternative energy source big enough to replace coal and oil dependence. Alas, the story plays out entirely at the margins while we watch scene after scene of Winnie pouting about her father’s behavior and Jake attempting to mend relationships he really has no need to have mended (he doesn’t quite see Gekko as a mentor, though he’s certainly more than willing to listen when the man volunteers his take on the financial world).
It seems like there was a very different film being made at some point, if you focus your attention in the right places—the aforementioned board room scenes seem to hint at more extensive conversations lying somewhere on the editing room floor. Josh Brolin barely gets to flex his muscles before the scenes resolve themselves with little rancor considering that they involve the decision for or against the biggest government bailout in history. If that doesn’t convince you that there was once a more interesting movie about this element of the story in the works, think about this as well: The film employs the outstanding Jason Clarke as a voice on the government side of the table who quite literally has no voice. He gets one speaking line in the movie which could have been delivered by an extra and carried the same weight behind it. The fact that he’s wasted in a potentially interesting film is to be lamented, but to wonder at what film Stone was casting for at some point when he recognized the talent of Clarke is something else entirely. What’s definitely clear is that he couldn’t have lined up an actor like Clarke with the original intention of having him sit silently through two scenes with a furrowed brow and absolutely nothing to do but fill a fancy business suit and look troubled.
It’s a shame to think that somewhere Stone was convinced or coerced into abandoning the type of edgy, intense film that the aging director is still capable of making in favor of a mostly-toothless love story set against the backdrop of a turning point in the history of American capitalism.
Overall Rating: 6.8/10