Thompson on Hollywood

Friday morning’s 8:30 AM press screening for Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps was packed and earned applause as journos ran out of the Lumiere before the movie had finished to get into the press conference. Stay to the end and you had no shot of getting in. The Robin Hood press conference was less imperative.

Like the 1987 film, this Wall Street installment is Oliver Stone in mainstream studio mode. Sure, his political slant on the financial crisis comes through loud and clear–the son of a Wall Street broker is preaching to the choir at this point–and he uses cigar-chomping alpha male Josh Brolin, who played George W. Bush in W., as this film’s embodiment of Wall Street greed and villainy, Master of the Universe Bretton James. (After playing Bush, “I’m still confused,” cracked Brolin at the press conference.) But James, who is part of a sprawling ensemble, is less fleshed-out and articulate than Douglas’s Gordon Gekko in the first film. He’s a caricature.

Thompson on Hollywood

The return of Douglas as Gekko is problematic. He’s also sharing the screen with the younger generation, Carey Mulligan as his anti-Wall Street blogger daughter Winnie and Shia LaBeouf as her fiance, another Wall Street player who believes in funding green technology. The film plays out the question of whether Gekko is reformed, after eight years in prison. Does he really want to win back a relationship with his daughter, or is he like the scorpion who can’t help his nature?

The script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff bears the earmarks of a sequel: bring back some old, bring in some new, and try to keep the whole thing timely and commercial. (Douglas worried at the press conference that continuing Wall Street news playing out on TV could make it more difficult to lure audiences to the movie–he remembers what happened on his own too-timely nuclear melt-down film The China Syndrome). Again, Gekko’s best scene is a speech. This time he’s an outsider who describes the financial crisis accurately and critically. “You’re all pretty much fucked,” he tells a room full of financial players. “You’re the Ninja generation. No income, no jobs, no assets. You have a lot to look forward to.” They must fight back against a “bankrupt busines model,” he tells them. Now he is the voice of the filmmaker.

Douglas and producer Edward R. Pressman (whose step-father was a banker) tried to lure Stone back for a sequel in 2006, but he refused. After the financial crash they returned with a new script in 2008 and Stone then felt that the movie’s time had come. Douglas and Stone were horrified by the way that Gordon “greed is good” Gekko had became a role model for Wall Street types, and set to redress the balance. Stone thinks Wall Street should be an agent for good, with positive impact on the economy, not just lining its own pockets. Most of the profits made by investment banks enriched the execs, and did not flow back into the economy, he said.

The movie follows so many threads and characters that none of them is fully-fledged, somehow. I wanted more of Mulligan, Douglas and LaBeouf, who lost his father early in life and cares deeply about his old lion boss (Frank Langella) and seeks a relationship with Gekko, who manipulates him effectively. Stone throws distracting cameos into the movie, from himself wearing a diamond stud and Charlie Sheen, who encounters Gekko at a party, to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, Sylvia Miles as a real estate broker, and New York press agent Peggy Siegal as part of a Metropolitan Museum fundraiser packed with women loaded with heavy jewelry. The movie pops in and out of satirizing and referencing itself and trying to create an authentic drama. And yet it moves along entertainingly, even if the resolution seems Hollywood pat.

As ever, Stone is a skillful filmmaker, and the movie, shot by Rodrigo Prieto and designed by Kristi Zea, looks great, with many swirling helicopter shots over Manhattan (LaBeouf rides several flashy motorbikes, and has a bluetooth cell in his bike helmet) and opulent Wall Street offices and sleek apartments packed with flat screen computers. And it doesn’t hurt to have David Byrne pop in and out of the soundtrack.

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