Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" premiered Friday morning for the media ahead of its public unveiling Friday night, bringing some much-needed topicality and even more badly needed celebrity to the Cannes Film Festival.
Stone's follow-up to his 1987 classic has been maligned and hyped in equal measure. Whatever you wind up thinking of the film, it offers the rare spectacle not only of a star-driven studio sequel that's also serious-minded, but a Hollywood movie that lands right in the middle of a news cycle, not years after it.
The film starts with the release from jail of Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko before cutting to a rather elaborate plot involving Shia LaBeouf as the young trader with (some) scruples, who's rising in a world that just happens to be collapsing at the same time, as investment banks run by the likes of Frank Langella and Josh Brolin (both excellent) teeter under the weight of the 2008 financial crisis. The story then carefully weaves in more and more Gekko (who, conveniently, also happens to be LaBeouf's future father-in-law, a dad to LaBeouf's on-screen fiancee, Carey Mulligan).
Without giving away too much of the plot, we'll say that the film is undeniably fun and slick, and establishes enough continuity to the '80's story line without forcing in (too many) artificial connections, so that it all feels like a genuine continuation of previously laid track For at least the first two-thirds, Stone does an admirable job spinning the twin plates of a financial thriller and a family drama (not to mention a cautionary tale) before an ending -- several endings, actually-- that seem false and on the nose.
The movie also offers the fun of several Easter eggs and the cameos: 80s media mainstay Graydon Carter turns up, as does Charlie Sheen, there to parody his own Bud Cox character -- or is it himself -- by appearing at a party, a woman on each arm, perfectly content in his own lecherousness.
At a post-screening news conference attended by the filmmakers and the cast, Stone acknowledged the two-handed trick he was trying to pull off. "This is a story about people balancing their love of power and money with their need for love," he said. (More from Stone and the cast later in the day and through the weekend, including the director's views on what exactly is wrong with the financial sector.)
Stone also offered a persuasive defense of making a sequel after several decades. "Twenty-three years is a long time," he said. "But the greed factor has multiplied, so you can walk away and come back." (Douglas speculated that many of the people currently in senior positions at these troubled banks were probably inspired to join the industry by the original film.)
There was a fundamental irony to the first film, which sought to warn of the Wall Street game and its excesses, but in many ways was read as glorifying it. Douglas noted that "Oliver and I were pretty stunned after the first one how they perceived Gekko. ... We never anticipated that all these MBAs would rant and rave that these are the people they wanted to be." It's not unreasonable to think the shiny world shown in the new film, even with all that we now know about the legal and ethical thin ice coating Wall Street, will do more of the same.
Even more relevant for Fox is the question of timing. "Money Never Sleeps" comes to the festival after the studio postponed its release date to allow for the Cannes premiere, as it decided to release the film in the fall instead of in April. Among other questions it raises is a marketing one; with financial scandals and reform so prominently in the news, there's an argument for releasing it right now.
The principals offered their best spin on why it was best to wait. Stone noted the fourth-quarter was historically the most volatile on Wall Street, and Douglas said he thought some distance from the news cycle was actually preferable because since film-goers would be more likely to come out to the movie if they didn't feel they had already seen it all on CNBC.
That may or may not turn out to be true. But at least at Cannes, it's refreshing to find that amid all the movies that fit into the insular world of cinema, there's at least one that reaches out to the wider world of current events.
-- Steven Zeitchik, reporting from Cannes, France
Photo: Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." Credit: 20th Century Fox