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“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”

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In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Michael Douglas reprises his role as Gordon Gecko -- a composite character based on several real life Wall Street raiders in the 1980's, including Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.
Image credit: 20th Century Fox

The first time I saw the trailer many months ago, I knew I was going to see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. How could I not? I love the 1987 original, and the same director and lead star were doing the sequel. The release of Money Never Sleeps was postponed so many times but, finally, it was in the movie houses. We chose to go on the last full show thinking the crowd would be thinner — the movie house was packed.

It wasn’t a short film. At 133 minutes, it’s longer than the average. Was it good? Hell, I wish I can answer that with a simple yes or no. But I can’t. Giving a categorical answer would probably be easier if I knew what director Oliver Stone’s intention was. But the intention seemed to keep shifting with every scene.

Michael Douglas reprises his role as Gordon Gecko — a composite character based on several real life Wall Street raiders in the 1980’s, including Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky (I really recommend Den of Thieves which beautifully chronicles the Wall Street scandal during the 80s). At the end of 1987’s Wall Street, he has a violent confrontation with his protege, Bud (Charlie Sheen), who was wearing a wire. Bud turns over the wire to the Feds and, well, the conclusion was clear.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens with Gecko being released from prison. The transition seems pretty smooth and clear at that point. The year is 2008. In American financial history, I suppose the whole world knows the significance of that year. Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) makes his first appearance. He is a trader in Keller Zabel Investments, an investment bank. Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella) is the managing director and Jacob’s mentor. Jacob is also the live-in partner of Gecko’s estranged daughter, Winnie, and a supporter of an alternative energy project which he was trying to fund.

The stocks of Keller Zabel Investments plummet, Zabel meets with heads of financial institutions, including Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz, and the U.S. Secretary of Treasury, and tries to arrange a bailout. To make a long story short, he doesn’t get it. The best he could do was to agree to a price of three dollars per share (the actual value of Keller Zabel Investments stocks is 79 dollars per share). The next day, Zabel throws himself in front on an oncoming subway train.

The debacle also means that Jacob had lost his chance to finance the alternative energy project.

The story now diverts. Is this still about Gecko or Jacob? I remained hopeful, waiting for the intersection where everything in both stories would result in an inevitable and intelligent integration.

Gordon Gecko is now a book author and speaker. Jacob attends one of Gecko’s speaking engagements and introduces himself, mentioning Winnie. Although it appears at first that Jacob is looking for a new mentor after the death of Zabel, it turns out he just wants information on what could have led to Zabel’s suicide. Gecko mentions Bretton James and tells Jacob that when Churchill Schwartz went under years earlier, Zabel had blocked a bailout. So, a vendetta angle is now evident.

Churchill Schwartz now controls Keller Zabel Investments. To avenge Zabel’s death, Jacob spreads gossip to make the stocks in James’ oil business plunge. But instead of getting Jacob into trouble, James admires his ballsy operation and makes Jacob his protege — a relationship that would eventually collapse, as expected, with Jacob telling James to fuck himself.

Meanwhile, Jacob’s and Gecko’s relationship takes a more than a casual note when they plot to arrange a reconciliation between Winnie and her father. Gecko’s intentions seem genuine (he said he learned in prison that time was more important than money) until he mentions a trust fund in Switzerland which he created for Winnie before he went to prison. After sitting there all those years, he estimates that the fund was worth $100 million.

Gecko makes a proposal to Jacob. Since the money was “tainted” and Winnie didn’t want it anyway, why not have Winnie dump it, Jacob could transfer the funds to Gecko who would launder it back into the U.S. where it could go into financing the alternative energy project. Jacob bites, convinces Winnie that she was better off signing the money away, she does, the money is transferred to Gecko who disappears with it and establishes a new investment firm in London.

Except for the rather trite dialogues, everything seems in place at this point. Even the pace of the movie is good. Everyone (well, except Winnie) is very much into underhanded deals. It is bothersome though that the character of Jacob, instead of being portrayed as a young man torn between idealism and the hunger for drop-dead money, appears half-baked both ways.

Jacob confesses to the now-pregnant Winnie who throws him out.

In his misery, he puts on paper all the information he has on Bretton James and his role in the collapse of of Keller Zabel. He gives the paper to Winnie and told her to publish it (she is involved in a non-profit web publication) for the good of the world.

The story could have ended there. Gecko is Gecko, master manipulator. Jacob the liar gets what he deserves. Betton James becomes the subject of federal investigation. Winnie wins by getting rid of both bastards in her life.

Then, director Oliver Stone seems to change his mind and decides that the story should have a happy ending. Gecko, now once again wealthy, gives back the $100 million. Winnie and Jacob reconcile. Gecko and Winnie and Jacob reconcile too.

And I go — what? And I started wondering what the whole point of the movie was. An attempt to educate the world on what really brought on the recession? A bid to moralize? What? Perhaps, if I saw it a second and a third time, I might glean some new perspectives that weren’t obvious the first time around. Perhaps. I’ll wait for the DVD release.