Play it Again, Stone: A Review of Money Never Sleeps

Oliver Stone is a bold man, first to attempt a sequel to as successful a film as Wall Street, and second to choose as its subtitle (even if it is a reference to the original) a phrase so open to parody.

The original Wall Street was so successful because it caught the business zeitgeist of the mid-Eighties perfectly. Insider trading, while it got headlines in the business pages, wasn’t at the top of public consciousness. But Stone put it there through the creation of the character Gordon Gekko, and Michael Douglas breathed life into the part. Gekko was of course a crook, but he was such a compelling crook. A. O. Scott in the New York Times described Gekko as a mix of “leonine bombast and reptilian cunning” and hence, “one of the heroic villains of modern pop culture.” Ironically, though Stone’s intent was to produce a cautionary tale, Gekko became a role model for many of the college graduates flocking to the financial services sector.

Stone and Douglas took an esoteric phenomenon and given it a fascinating personification. Stone also gave a reasonably clear account of the mechanics of insider trading and corporate predation. The challenge in making a sequel was to both explain and personify the market meltdown of 2008. But the difference between 1987 and 2008 is that the events of the latter year, while much more esoteric in their origins, had consequences that were much more widespread and therefore captured public attention to a much greater degree. Thus, the explanation would have to be more complicated and the authored personification would have to compete with people already in the public eye (Fuld, Cayne, Blankfein, Paulson et al).

Stone’s route into the crises of capitalism is through the interplay of mentor and protégé. The center of the story in Wall Street, you’ll remember, was young stockbroker Bud Fox’s search for a mentor and Gekko’s search for a protégé who would uncover insider information and identify targets for predation. And the movie is resolved in Fox’s attempt, ultimately successful, to exact revenge on his false and exploitative mentor.

In Money Never Sleeps, the issue of mentorship becomes more complicated because young investment banker Jake Moore (Shia LaBoeuf) has three serial mentors. The first, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) is a true mentor, ultimately brought down, and driven to suicide, when his eponymous investment bank fails. The second, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), President of Churchill Schwartz, the investment bank that brought down Zabel’s, proves himself a false mentor, and Moore’s goal becomes the exaction of vengeance on him. The third is Gordon Gekko. Gekko and Moore are linked because Moore is living with Winnie, the daughter who rejected Gekko while he served time.

Gekko is released from prison and, banned from trading, returns to public consciousness by writing a book denouncing the greed that was previously his rubric and predicting financial collapse. Gekko, however, is itching to get back into the money game and exploit the volatility of that extraordinary period to make a second fortune. Ultimately Gekko succeeds by, so it appears, becoming a false mentor yet again, tricking his daughter – with Moore’s unintended collaboration – out of the inheritance that had been set aside for her in a Swiss bank. But here things are not as they seem, and Gekko proves himself the true mentor to both his daughter and son-in-law, and is rewarded by the restoration of his family.

Wall Street ended in tragedy, with both mentor and protégé brought low, while Money Never Sleeps is a comedy, with the mentor and his two protégés – daughter and son-in-law – reunited and exalted. The market meltdown serves as the background for this essentially domestic fable. It provides the context for the destruction of the true mentor Zabel, the rationale for Moore to exact revenge on the false mentor Bretton James, and the opportunity for Gekko to prove himself the ultimate true mentor.

New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, in his recent review of Money Never Sleeps, regrets that Stone never attempted the harder task of explaining the market meltdown and near-depression by enlightening his audience about the housing bubble, credit default swaps, and collateralized debt obligations. Stone is a film-maker, not a finance professor, so he would have to do this by creating characters who could personify this story in the way Gekko personified insider trading and corporate predation. So far, the author who has done this most vividly in print is Michael Lewis, in The Big Short, which focuses on the prescient few who saw the financial cataclysm coming and mode fortunes playing the short side of the market. Nocera is thus right in predicting that Money Never Sleeps will not become the zeitgeist movie that Wall Street was. We still await it.

Nonetheless, if accepted on Stone’s terms, namely as a movie about mentorship, Money Never Sleeps is enjoyable entertainment. Adding to the fun are the intertextual references to Wall Street, most notably Charlie Sheen’s cameo appearance as the prosperous Bud Fox, and the visual depiction of the glittering world of New York’s super-rich, epitomized by an extended scene at a charity ball focusing on the extravagantly jeweled earrings worn by the trophy wives.

Sequels rarely surpass the original – Godfather II is the only one that readily comes to mind that did – but in their inevitable intextuality they can be appealing, and this one certainly is. The grade: B +.

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