*. Oh, the missed opportunity. Oh, the unrealized potential.
*. Here was a chance to revisit a classic film, and an iconic role with Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko, that had taken on even greater relevance due to the financial crisis of 2007-08. Douglas and Oliver Stone were back in the saddle. With one exception there was a more than adequate cast. How could they go wrong?
*. Lots of ways. I’ll start with the “one exception” to the cast. That would be Shia LaBeouf, who plays the main character, Jake. Shia LaBeouf is not a great actor. To be fair, the part he’s playing here is crap, but even so he’s no Charlie Sheen.
*. The contrast with Sheen’s Bud Fox (who shows up here for a disappointingly brief cameo) is worth pursuing. Bud Fox was a sleazy young man on the make, and Sheen fit the role perfectly. Part of the problem LaBeouf has is that his character is ridiculous, being a sensitive, idealistic fellow who is also, at different times, an arrogant jerk, sucker, and wheedling heel. That Gordon Gekko’s daughter, played winningly by Carey Mulligan, loves him makes no sense at all. But then little in this script does.
*. Later films dealing with the financial meltdown (Margin Call, The Big Short) would employ different strategies to explain enough of the details to make the proceedings sensible. Money Never Sleeps doesn’t even try. As a result, it is never entirely clear what is going on.
*. Take the motif of the bubble. In the opening voiceover Jake talks about how different extinction events in Earth’s history (Cambrian, etc.) were bubbles. Gekko later gives him a lecture on Tulipmania, the most famous of all stock bubbles. Children are seen playing with bubbles in the park, and the movie ends with a bubble rising over Manhattan.
*. But the financial dealings don’t really have much to do with bubbles. The subprime mortgage meltdown is an event, but is that what brings Bretton James (Josh Brolin) down? Churchill Schwartz is shorting subprimes. Are CDOs what Zabel was involved in? It’s not clear. Nor is it clear exactly what Brolin is doing with his Locust Fund. Presumably some kind of insider trading, though the news reports we hear jumbled together in a rush at the end are hazy on whether he’s done anything illegal.
*. These matters are strangely left unexplained. I say it’s strange because nothing in the movie seems overly complex. Jake is able to torch Bretton James for a $130 million loss just by spreading some silly rumours. Then later he brings Bretton down simply by revealing the existence of a private fund that isn’t even a secret. Meanwhile, Gekko is able to get his hands on his daughter’s nest egg by the rather simple expedient of having Jake talk her into signing it over to him, after which he runs away with the loot. Wow. That was tricky. I can understand Jake not seeing that coming.
*. By the way: putting aside his criminal liability, hasn’t Jake ruined his career by spreading the false rumour of the nationalization of the African country’s oil reserves to all of his best clients, which is trading on his credibility as an energy insider?
*. They could have done so much more with the angle of how times had changed. Especially the new high-speed financial trading, that Gekko would probably not have understood. Indeed, Gekko’s brand of insider dealing would make him a dinosaur in today’s markets.
*. I like Susan Sarandon, but she’s terrible here as a caricature mom getting wiped out in the real estate bust. Luckily this leads to her redemption in a Rise of Silas Lapham sort of way (you lose the world but gain your soul), and she is able to return to real, useful work as a nurse. A job where she can do good. As Stone puts it on the commentary, she “has returned to her roots and is better for it.” This is a theme we see in many of the films dealing with the crisis: the unreal financial sector juxtaposed with a real world that has value and meaning. Only here it’s a message that’s delivered with a hammer.
*. Indeed the whole ending of this movie is a mess. Brolin destroying his Goya in fit is hilarious. Meanwhile, the laser fusion/ocean thermal energy conversion project seems to be a go, which means that good capitalism has indeed saved the world.
*. Most troubling, however, is Gekko’s redemption: returning to his daughter the $100 million he stole from her. This somehow makes everything right. Now there’s the power of money being felt on the personal level! At the end of the day (or end of the film), money has the ability to cure all ills and unhappiness. The future is green.
*. That ending was a late addition. When the film originally screened at Cannes it ended with Gekko in his office looking at the ultrasound video. Why did Stone feel the need to be so sentimental?
*. If you listen to his commentary you’ll hear him arguing that he is only being true to his essentially romantic vision of life. He believes in the human spirit, is a moralist, and doesn’t understand people who want him to be more cynical. That’s not who he is. He thinks we live in a disturbed age where people want to see unhappy endings and the bad guys winning. He thinks filmmakers should “light a candle in the darkness.”
*. I don’t buy it. Or at least I don’t buy all of it. It’s a fact that every artist loses their mojo eventually. Stone is still a rebel in a lot of ways, but he’s just not as bold and provocative as he used to be. His most recent films have ranged from poor to terrible (Savages being one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen).
*. And so the opportunity is missed. This is a real shame because Stone does evil well, and the other finance movies I mentioned steer away from giving us real portraits in villainy (Margin Call paints in shades of gray, and the bad guys in The Big Short aren’t so much villains as morons). But there’s a lack of anger here, and Stone is more interested in redemption than in assigning blame. The bursting of a bubble will lead to a glorious new day. This is capitalism’s creative destruction. As bad as it may seem, it’s all for the best. Justice is served in perhaps the most fanciful part of the story when we see Brolin doing a perp walk. A baby is born. Money breeds more money. The system works.