Critical Mass: 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'
The years have not been kind to Gordon Gekko, as we see from the opening moments of Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." The '80s bad boy who once famously boasted that "Greed is good" is now an ex-con, recently released from prison into a world even more cutthroat than the one he left.
The same could be said for Stone's film, which attempts to recapture the magic of the 1987 original but seems to have cleanly divided the critics. They generally still love Michael Douglas' Gekko but could pass on the rest of the stuff Stone adds to his plate.
The Times' Kenneth Turan found the sequel to be unfocused and sloppy: "The film has more moving parts than a pricey Rolex, and they are not all in sync." But he does have high praise for the bad guys, if only we could see more of them. "So let's hear it for Josh Brolin's Bretton," Turan says. "And some applause for the fearless 94-year-old Eli Wallach's Julie Steinhardt, terrifying when he makes eccentric bird noises and talks about the crash of '29 and the end of the world. And we can't forget Michael Douglas as Gekko Redux, at least in those moments when the film allows him to be as bad as he ought to be."
David Edelstein, in New York magazine, echoes Turan's complaints and laments that Douglas' Gekko is absent for long stretches of the movie. He writes, "The film is like my portfolio: full of promise, with minuscule returns." He then goes on to pick apart the various subplots and generally scratches his head at Charlie Sheen's brief cameo, in which the character from the first "Wall Street" has somehow become the real-life Sheen, with a babe on each arm.
Many critics who dislike the film agree on its true villain: director Oliver Stone. Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum accuses the director of mucking up his return to the world of larger-than-life egos with a propensity toward hand-wringing. She writes that Stone "seems uncharacteristically preachy, in a square, Our Dumb Nation way," which prevents his most interesting characters from taking flight.
The film doesn't even play on its home turf: Wall Street. Joe Morgenstern, writing in the Wall Street Journal, praises Douglas (like everyone else) and even manages a few kind words for young Shia LaBeouf, saying "he's effective within the limits of Mr. Stone's ham-fisted direction." But again, Stone (along with screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff) comes across as the big baddie, relentlessly messing with our ability to just enjoy one of cinema's great villains.
But lest you think Stone's latest is destined to sink into the universally detested netherworld of his "Alexander," two major-league critics have come out in praise of the film. The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips isn't exactly effusive in his praise (he gives the film two and a half stars), but he does manage to find the bright side of Stone's murk: his actors. He writes that the film "has its satisfactions, thanks mainly to a cast skillful enough to finesse what is effectively two films sharing the same screen."
The most positive review (three stars) comes from Roger Ebert, who perhaps thinks more highly of it because the film in wide release is a shorter, smoother improvement on the version of it he saw in May in Cannes. He certainly gives Stone the benefit of the doubt in terms of the new "Wall Street's" softer approach toward greed. "I wish it had been angrier," he says. "I wish it had been outraged. Maybe Stone's instincts are correct, and American audiences aren't ready for that. They haven't had enough of Greed."
Maybe so, though the weekend box office will tell us whether or not they just crave the old-fashioned bank robbery kind.
— Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: Michael Douglas returns as Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Credit: Barry Wetcher / 20th Century Fox.