While all of the pre-release talk has been about the return of Gordon Gekko, and how Michael Douglas will be able to translate the cult appeal of a character who was so perfectly of his time into sustained appeal into and beyond the sequel, his is a performance of relative restraint. There are the inevitable lines which will turn into essential quotables, and you get the sense at one point that the script is trying a little too hard to shoe-horn them in, but he remains an emminently impressive character, even in his supposed decline. Douglas manages a good performance, but has a far diminished role than he enjoyed in the first film, and I think the character prospers precisely because of it. His chemistry with other characters, predominantly Shia Labeouf’s Jacob Moore is still mesmorising, and their relationship often hits the heights of Gordon’s relationship with Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox in the first film.
At the end of the day, the hook of Wall Street, and indeed the hook of the sequel is all based upon charming characters. The Gekko is a necessarily restrained figure, but the flashes of brilliant charm, and those occasionally heavy hitting one-liners (“A Fisherman always recognises a fisherman from a distance”) still offer an intriguingly murky shroud over his true motives and continues his legend even as he appears on screen. It is Brolin who takes up the mantle of charming villain in Gekko’s absence, and it is he who steals a march in the quotable stakes when he is asked directly what his number is (how much it would take for him to retire, essentially) and responds with an irresistible “More”, teamed with the kind of roguishly charming wink that would floor even the most unsympathetic of viewers.
Brolin’s performance deserves a lot of credit, and I think will get it when the film hits screens for real later in the year. He looks great, taylored to within an inch of his life, and does remarkably well to imply an underlying malice that you can only ever guess at throughout the first third of the film (even despite the accusations levelled at him) and a volatility that never fully reaches the surface without ever becoming the pantomime villain. There is far more implied of his inner fire (when he is accused of various crimes, or when Jacob beats him in a contest of machoism) than is ever explicated. Most impressively of all, Brolin’s Bretton James emerges from Gekko’s overbearing villainous shadow with panache, and commands the screen admirably whenever he enters it.
Shia LaBeouf continues his quest to become a likeable, but never fully accomplished leading man and shows his one truly great skill- for explosive flashes of emotion- in a role where all he can really expect from the audience in terms of reaction is their empathy. The character of Jacob is rather unfortunately depicted as naive and ideallistic, though he shows, again in flashes, an intellectual brilliance and business accumen that allows him to comfortably swim the sharks, though he is somewhat overshadowed by Gordon Gekko, and the inevitable affinity that any audience member who had the pleasure of seeing the first installment will have for him. Regardless of his crimes, Gekko will always be the kind of anti-hero that we route for, which muddies the waters somewhat for how we feel about Jacob.
Elsewhere, Susan Sarandon and Frank Langella are never really given much screen time, but both are good. Langella plays the broken man perfectly- he is the unfortunate product of a “game” that has no position or time for him any more- and combined with Sarandon’s “toxic debt” personification, forms the basis on which Jacob’s essentially good character is built.
One aspect of the film that really appealed to me when I first heard of its inception, was the narrative strand that gave Gekko a deeper humanity than was even hinted at in the first film in the shape of a promised reconciliation with his estranged daughter Winnie, played by Carey Mulligan. I wasn’t disappointed: Douglas and Mulligan commanded a near irresistible on-screen chemistry, both bearing the visible emotional scars of Gekko’s past with aplomb. Mulligan’s performance is the second high-point behind Brolin, and again the powers that be in awards circles probably wont be too far away from her name when the time comes. She is undoubtedly the emotional centre of the film, though her position as moral heart is not as obviously clear (which gives her the extra intrigue), and her relationships with both Gekko and Jacob are incredibly compelling, based on the chemistry that comes so easily to Mulligan.
I wont offer too many plot spoilers, as it would cheapening to do so, but the story is compelling enough to make sure that Money Never Sleeps never becomes just a vehicle for excellent character studies, which part of me suspected it might. Nor is the movie just a vehicle for the return of Gordon Gekko. The economic disintergration that forms the backdrop for the plot offers Oliver Stone the opportunity to prove that he can still spin a good yarn, while offering a stinging politicised commentary on the culpability of Wall Street and the large American banking firms in the downturn. And Stone is never better than when he has both motive and narrative at his disposal. Cruciallyfor the success of the film, the politicised commentary is given only as much exposure as the human relationships within the narrative, with the motif of the way fathers influence their children, and the destructive influence that absent fathers (with the consequent search for a replacement) can cause playing a particularly intriguing role in the wider narrative.
Inevitably, the press after will attempt to further Stone’s commentary on capitalism and the economic climate, and I can only hope that the director employs a little more self-restraint than in the aftermath of JFK. He is probably in danger of becoming a caricature- the politicised malcontent director who believes his own theories to be gospel- when in reality his appeal is because he is an accomplished director who offers topics for debate as well as being able to entertain those viewers who dont particularly want to take the debate home with them from the cinema.
The one low-point of the film is the music. While the score generally is great (when it is incidental or mood building), the choice of actual songs that pepper the film are pretty terrible and detract focus from the visuals, which is cardinal sin number one for any music department on a project like this. The most unwelcome of all was the inclusion of a slightly pacier, bass-heavy version of David Byrne’s “Lazy”, which felt terribly out of place.
In contrast to the music, the visuals are stunning. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto almost pulls off a Woody Allen style coup of writing a visual love letter to New York, with his long sweeping shots of the city looking beautiful throughout. The one shot of Zurich that made it to the final film is also particularly good-looking, but it is definitely the presentation of Wall Street itself that Prieto and Stone deserve greatest praise for, making the district as important a visual component (or character even) as it is an essential narrative identity in the film and also the wider economic environment it comments on.
And what of the release date shift for awards season? Well, they did the right thing. Josh Brolin is terrific, and smart money is on him walking away with a few Best Supporting nods at least, with the distinct possibility that Carey Mulligan might join him on the nominations list. And with the Best Film list swollen to include ten choices, Id throw my weight behind Money Never Sleeps running it close. Though possibly not a cert (it being very early to call), the film certainly has a huge chance, and it wouldnt be an unjusitifed inclusion by any means.
Finally, a word on Charlie Sheen. His cameo is funny (though it is far more an obvious comic caricature of Sheen himself, rather than the character Bud Fox) and very welcome, but it must be utterly soul-destroying to be standing opposite a man who is your senior by some way, and actually looking terrible by proxy.