Sunday, September 19, 2010

Money never sleeps, but the audience, well...

(This is a review of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. There are no spoilers, but you shouldn't care even if there were, because no one should pay to see this movie.)

The line was long, extending through the lobby, down the stairs, out the building and along the sidewalk of what serendipitously happened to be New Haven's own Wall Street, which, in lieu of the world's largest stock exchange, is home to the Yale Law School (take from that what you will).

We arrived a half hour early and were literally the last two people to get seats in the packed auditorium. Before sitting down we were wanded by an overwhelmed-looking security guard to make sure we had no cameras or cellphones with us, which were strictly forbidden from the advanced screening somehow secured by the Yale Film Society.

Two hours later, as we emerged back onto Wall Street, bitchily dissecting the film's vapid preachy tone, inattention to character development and/or depth and/or symbolism, sloppy and inaccurate references to "moral hazard" and butchered summaries of the American financial situation, we paused, not even a block from the theater, having realized that neither of us could remember the protagonist's name.

We knew it started with a J and was probably monosyllabic. I offered to bet on the name with my friend. Though I couldn't remember a single line or scene where any character addressed our protagonist anonyme, my intuition screamed "Jake!", and I'm rarely the type to ignore my screaming inner gypsy.

My friend was leaning toward Jack, but he wouldn't take me up on the bet. Only 20 years old, he's already a tax and finance wonk, and as such (or maybe the causation flows the other way?) he's prone to bouts of "rational decision making," "cost-benefit analysis," "risk management," and other such soulless WASP affectations. Of course, he was right not to- the wailing old Slovak that is the voice of my subconscious hadn't let me down (the protagonist's name was the incomparably forgettable "Jake Moore").

See what I did there, drawing on personality and cultural archetypes to help make what is essentially a non-event into a vaguely engaging narrative whose conclusion largely allows you to draw your own?

If you are looking for anything even vaguely resembling that kind of storytelling, send me the $10 you would've wasted on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, because at best, that's what it could've been, and it failed to achieve even that.

It was 133 minutes long, roughly 120 of which felt like window dressing for what seemed to be the only two scenes Oliver Stone cared about: Moore's pseudo-scientific babble explaining the wonders of fusion energy to a Chinese investor (accompanied by CGI animations a la first season House- you know, before they realized it was a cheesy gimmick that distracted from the storytelling), and Gekko's bizarre lecture montage explaining the financial crisis, which, y'know, failed to really explain anything, but the hamfisted editing and musical score might trick someone into thinking it does if they don't bother listening.

The Whitney Humanities Center auditorium seats 242 people. Over 200 of my fellow audience goers that night were college students, so I'm not sure if WS: MNS will get quite as many laughs in future showings, but I'm also not sure that Stone didn't intend for some of the more "intense" scenes to garner outright laughter.

"Do you realize what you're asking for here?" asks some suit behind a conference table in the NY Federal Reserve. "The biggest bailout in history." Soap opera-confrontation quality line delivery. Serious Eyes! Serious Forehead! Serious Voice! The laughter begins. "Nationalization. Socialism." The audience loses it. The villainous Bretton James replies, with equal levels of 'I am being so earnest you should call me Jack', "If we don't do this, there won't be any more history."

I am not making this up.

Michael Douglas is largely a pleasure to watch, except in scenes with Carey Mulligan, who plays Gekko's spoiled brat liberal activist Elektra blah blah blah daughter Winnie. All the lines I remember because I liked them (and not because they reminded me of the self-serious bathos of Ed Wood) were his. Bud Fox briefly reappears. It wasn't particularly entertaining- all I remember is that Charlie Sheen's nose has somehow acquired a vaguely Nixoneqsue bulbousness since 1987.

The costuming was also fantastic, and I might recommend this film to aspiring sartorialists just because of the incredible attention to detail. When Jake first confronts Bretton James (played by Josh Brolin), having interrupted some kind of latter day bacchanal/fundraiser of his, Bretton is wearing a sumptuous burgundy suit jacket with a tie that matches in all the right ways, somehow faintly evoking a Doctor Faustus vibe. Gekko more than once wears an absolutely gorgeous jacket with a plaid so subtle it might be missed on the big screen- but look for it, and revel in fabrics and tailoring the likes of which you didn't know existed.

One final note, because this "review" is already too long and I don't feel like getting into the fifty other reasons why this film is vacuous at best: in the original Wall Street Gekko is never seen smoking a cigar, only cigarettes. I, being me, read a lot into this- everyone else in Wall Street who matters smokes cigars- Bud Fox, his father, and Gekko smoke cigarettes. To me this said something interesting about tobacco-as-class-marker, and about Gekko's unwillingness to let go of his lower class past in particular.

In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I don't think I saw a single cigarette, and Gekko smoked plenty of cigars. I actually think this makes sense- destabilized, insecure, and with a fraction of the money he did prior to incarceration, he no longer has the luxury or the confidence to play himself down- there's a scene where he greets some other financial bigwig only to be awkwardly brushed aside and ignored- now, he needs every superficial wealth-and-power-signalling accessory he can find, for himself, probably, more than for anyone else.

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