TREACHERY IN THE WORLD OF HIGH FINANCE
About three-quarters of the way into “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” there's a closeup on Michael Douglas where he looks exactly like his old man. Not only does it make you gasp with recognition (if you're of a certain age) it also brings uncountable memories flooding back: of Kirk Douglas in his prime, starring in everything from masterpieces like “Paths of Glory” to camp classics like “20,000 leagues Under the Sea.”
I'm not going to say that Michael is the actor his father was, because he's got an entirely different presence. But it's nice to see him following in his dad's footsteps, and doing very well at it.
Michael, of course, won an Academy Award for his role as Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone's original “Wall Street” from 1987, and now he's back as Gekko again in the sequel. He won't win an Oscar this time around, but he does some very strong work in one of Stone's most watchable films since “Natural Born Killers,” which was also hardly Oscar material.
Stone is known for some brilliant work, especially on the subject of the Viet Nam War (“Platoon”), but he gets involved in controversies because he can't seem to resist putting his obsessions up on the screen – “JFK,” which theorized that Kennedy was assassinated by a conspiracy of right-wing drag queens, was a laff riot. But you can always say two things in Stone's favor, and both of them are evident in this “Wall Street” sequel.
First off, Stone's technical expertise can be seen everywhere in this movie: in his camera angles, rhythms and transitions, and his mastery of everything that makes movies visually interesting except, in this case, explosions. When he irises down to black over a black-tie event at the Metropolitan Museum, with the dance orchestra, surprisingly, playing the Fate theme from Carmen, you know you're in good hands.
The other positive thing is that Stone, I think, must have become a great actors' director. With a first-rate cast here, he gets first-rate performances out of all of them, from the big scenery-chewing moments to the intimate, heart-breaking ones. How many times have you seen a movie where some of your favorite actors flounder around like horses in quicksand, and wondered what the heck's wrong? Seven times out of ten it's the fault of a director who doesn't know how to work with actors. (The other three times it's the actors themselves what ain't got no talent, and why are they your favorites anyway? )
Stone has a quiet, subtle touch here with everyone from Shia LaBoeuf and Carey Mulligan as the young couple we identify with (cute and feisty but with enough integrity to keep them sympathetic) to, God bless him, Eli Wallach as an ancient Federal Reserve executive who can barely talk but still commands immense respect, as he bloody well should.
While I'm at it I must say that the great Frank Langella absolutely commands the movie's first half hour, to the point that you'll be very sorry at his abrupt exit from the proceedings. And Susan Sarandon has even less to do, but she's gotcha for the five minutes she's on screen. Josh Brolin smiles his way creepily through the villain role with more hair than any man his age should be allowed to wear, though as usual he's sabotaged by a really silly haircut.
What is this great cast doing here, you may be wondering? Well, as Stone set his last Wall Street movie in 1985, to take advantage of the insider trading scandal, he sets the sequel in 2008, just before the subprime mortgage disaster.
Without quite getting into the whole economic meltdown, Stone's characters cheerfully cut one another's throats even while not considering how it will effect the economy of the entire world. Without actually allowing his narrative to flow into the current depression, Stone allows Gekko to prophecy that the pattern will repeat forever (until, for example, now) until the free market goes belly up, as it almost did last time.
Last week at the library I made a few photocopies, and then turned in an overdue book.
“That's 30 cents,” said the librarian.
“Just use that to pay for the copies,” I said.
It was a joke, but we decided that's how High Finance must work – use a debt to pay a debt, even if both of the debts are yours.
I'm on the library board, and once we figure out how we can work this, we have great hopes for the future of the library, and for that trip to the Greek Islands.