By Felipe Cabrera
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps stars Shia LeBeouf as Jake Moore, a “Wall Street guy” determined to marry his girlfriend Winnie and invest in green technology (fusion), at least until the stock market tanks. In the wake of his mentor’s suicide, financial tycoon Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella), and the plummeting marketplace, Moore proposes to Winnie (Carey Mulligan).
Winnie happens to be the daughter of the infamous Gordon Gekko, reprised by Michael Douglas, who is a few years out of jail and peddling a new book. Moore approaches Gordon and they strike a deal together. Gekko will do business with Moore in exchange for another chance with his daughter. Winnie hasn’t spoken to her father since she was 14-years-old.
Moore then confronts Bretton James (Josh Brolin) of Churchill Schwartz, the man partially responsible for the demise of Keller Zabel, his own firm. Impressed by Moore’s grit, James hires him. Gordon suspects that James was the one who sold him out to the Feds back in the 80s.
Post-lockup Gekko says he’s motivated by time, not vengeance, and indeed time is perhaps the central theme of the film. For the young idealists, Jake and Winnie, time seems to be the only capital they have left. For Gordon, time doesn’t mean possibility. It represents fate.
Michael Douglas plays a more nuanced, slightly sympathetic Gordon Gekko, a more Scrooge, less Satan kind of guy. The original Wall Street was an allegorical morality tale that dealt with insider trading. The sequel has its sights set a little higher: the shit storm the real Wall Street has been embroiled in for the last few years, which is infinitely more complicated. For Stone, merely explaining the plot’s background requires a fair amount of floating numbers, skyline-tracing graphs, and excerpts from both real and fake news programs (sadly no Daily Show). It isn’t until near the end of the movie that the real culprit is revealed: credit default swaps, and other questionably-rated bonds that propelled Frank Langella’s character to Anna Karenina himself at the close of the first act. Screen veteran Eli Wallach gives a particularly memorable performance as a whistling voice of wisdom for Churchill-Schwartz.
There are beautiful shots of New York in this film, perhaps some of the best in any film in recent years. The acting is on point, but the scenes between LeBeouf and Susan Sarandon feel forced. Sarandon plays LeBeouf’s mother who works as a real-estate agent, an illustrative character for the real estate bubble. While Douglas’ warnings about irresponsible practices both inform and drive the plot forward, the final confrontation between LeBeouf and Sarandon doesn’t ring as true as Stone might have intended.
Recent events are everywhere in this movie. One cannot watch Douglas’s performance without feeling the echoes of his present. When Gekko apologizes to his daughter for his mistakes, she reproaches him for not having been there to prevent her brother’s overdose. Douglas delivers a particularly sober but passionate response. Given Douglas’s son’s drug use, and his own recent cancer diagnosis (cancer having replaced greed as Gecko’s favorite word in this film), one can’t help but construe the trials of Douglas’s own life with his character’s.
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS opens on September 24th in theaters nationwide.
Michael Douglas is a Hollywood institution.
The son of legendary screen actor Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas began acting in a string of bit TV and film roles before making a big Hollywood splash in 1975, winning the Oscar for Best Picture as producer of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Douglas then starred in heroic roles in a number of action films like “The China Syndrome” and “Romancing the Stone.” Then, in 1987, Douglas become a bona fide star, appearing as the antagonist/corporate slime-ball Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s ever-prescient film, “Wall Street.” With his signature line: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” Gekko has become a symbol in popular culture for corporate greed/malfeasance.
Post-Gekko, Douglas followed in his father’s footsteps, playing a string of dark, edgy roles in B-movies like “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct,” before doing a career 180 and playing the commander-in-chief in “The American President.” Since then, he’s appeared in a diverse array of films, most notably: Stephen Soderbergh’s ensemble drug saga “Traffic” and Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys.” Douglas has experienced a bit of a career lull of late, with forgettable fare like “The Sentinel,” “You, Me and Dupree,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” etc. Making matters worse, on April 20, 2010, Douglas’s son Cameron was sentenced to five years in prison for possessing heroin and dealing large amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine.
However, Douglas’s career is poised to be back on track again with his first-rate performance in “Solitary Man,” as well as reprising his Gekko character in Oliver Stone’s sequel, “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” and a pair of films reuniting him with “Traffic” director Soderbergh: “Liberace,” a biopic on the famous entertainer, and the ensemble action/thriller “Knockout.”
SOLITARY MAN sees Douglas return to award-worthy form as Ben Kalmen, a car dealership scion about to turn 60 with a medical condition who sees his auto business liquidated due to corporate malfeasance; his marriage to Nancy (Susan Sarandon) over thanks to his infidelity; and his flakiness ruining his relationship with his daughter (Jenna Fischer) and her young son. Ben accompanies his current girlfriend’s (Mary-Louise Parker) college-bound daughter, Allyson (Imogen Poots), to Ben’s alma mater so he can sweet talk the dean. On his journey, Ben encounters a nerdy sophomore, Cheston (Jesse Eisenberg), who he offers advice on women, his old friend from school (Danny Devito) and butts heads with – among other things – with the headstrong Allyson. The film is directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the scriptwriting team behind Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “The Girlfriend Experience.”
MMM sat down with the inimitable Michael Douglas to chat about his films “Solitary Man” and “Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps,” what he learned from his father, Kirk, his longstanding friendship with Danny Devito and his son Cameron’s legal troubles.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Do you see Gordon Gekko and Ben as related characters in a way?
MICHAEL DOUGLAS: I was arguing the difference before I heard my writer/director make the comparison. They’re urban, New York guys. Both of them came from Long Island. One’s world is a little bigger, a little bigger stage – Gordon and the size of that. Ben is probably a little bit more of a little fish in a big pond.
MMM: He’s a very self-destructive character. Is his cynical outlook symptomatic of a midlife crisis?
DOUGLAS: No. I think it’s a third act and a mortality issue. He’s running on empty. He’s living for the moment, thinking of his life. There’s a certain desperation, but he’s a car dealer and so he’s a motor-mouth and doesn’t necessarily think about what he’s saying or really the repercussions of his actions. Then I think this situation sobers him up.
MMM: You embody this type of character so well. Why do you think that is?
DOUGLAS: Well, without blowing smoke up Mr. [Brian] Koppleman’s butt, it doesn’t hurt that you’ve got a really good screenplay. Steven Soderbergh, who works with David [Levien] and Brian, first introduced me to this project. I read it through just once and said, “This is great writing, wonderful. This is a good chance.” So, I think I just really always go with the script and don’t worry so much about the part. I mean sometimes you get a really good part like this but if you think it’s a good story, also the unpredictability. I think if you’re going to do these kinds of characters you really have to be unsure of where you’re going as opposed to most movies where you can kind of guess the ending.
MMM: Do you think your character mirrors what’s going on in society today? Men in high positions in a downward spiral?
DOUGLAS: That’s a good question. Selfishly, I sort of think about the film and the project rather than that. That’s almost like your job – to give it some resonance as to how it reflects. I think that we all read the papers and keep in touch with what’s going on and it probably strikes us. I know that Brian has talked about how he saw this character. He actually saw him in real life. I said, “I don’t see anyone in New York like this.” I’m not actually checking out guys in black pants and black jackets and then the next thing you know you go to restaurant and there’s three of them, just the way he said. Black-on-black. Look in the mirror, check themselves in the reflection.
MMM: Do you think there’s added sympathy for the character because of his medical condition?
DOUGLAS: Well, that’s a good excuse for part of the screenplay to possibly get away with this behavior and to spend close to two hours with this guy as your protagonist without wanting to let him have it. I think that was a good device that Brian came up in the screenplay.
MMM: Your father was famous for playing an unlikable, cynical kind of character. You haven’t done that so much except for “Falling Down” and—
DOUGLAS: “Wall Street.” My dad did the sensitive young man for about six or seven pictures before he did a movie called “Champion,” which he got nominated for, where he played a nasty in 1950. I had essentially the same thing until “Wall Street” and then all of a sudden I’m playing these darker, edgier guys. The fun part of this one was the tragedy/comedy and I thought that it went really well and that both Brian and David did just a great job of kind of keeping that balance. I was just so happy to see Imogen Poots, who played that poor young lady. I thought that it was interesting that we could not find a sophisticated New Yorker.
DOUGLAS: Well, I think it’s stamina. Stamina and tenacity. My father, he likes to give a lot of advice. He says, “Look, son, you do the best that you can. You do the best you can and then fuck it.”
MMM: You’ve unfortunately been in the headlines a lot recently with your son Cameron’s troubles. How is he doing?
DOUGLAS: He’s doing as well as can be expected. He has been sentenced now so it’s actually now a little bit of a relief. It’s been a long year, dealing with it. Life goes on and hopefully he’ll be a better person.
MMM: How did you feel on the days you were shooting the college kegger scenes? Did you feel like one of the guys?
DOUGLAS: I love all the college stuff. The moment after they have the fight and goes up to Jesse Eisenberg, to the dorm room where he puts on that t-shirt. The whole fish out of water element. The kegger party was fun, too, watching them get shutdown. It was a great scene. When I saw the picture I was so honored by one of the scenes there, with the simplicity of how they shot it, how they directed it, allowing that one long dollying shot where I’m telling Jesse the ways of life. I couldn’t believe it. It’s so nice to see directors who trust actors and not feel a necessity to show their wares or this or that. It takes great maturity.
MMM: Well, Brian said that you nailed that in three takes while they were pushing, which meant that they didn’t have to cut away at all, and there are very few actors – if any – who can do that.
DOUGLAS: Well, listeners. Jesse Eisenberg is one of the best listeners. They always talk about your acting, but it’s also listening. That’s something that my father used to talk about. He’s great, just great.
MMM: What is it about Danny Devito, having worked together on a number of films, that brings out the best in you as an actor?
DOUGLAS: I understand why actors like to work with each other over and over again. With Danny, this is the fourth picture. Making movies and acting is not a natural situation. There’s cameras and lights and all of that. Then you add to that actors who have to meet each other and shake hands and this and that. So, when you’ve got an old friend, a Simon and Garfunkel song, it wasn’t a large part. He wasn’t there very long but there’s a comfort fact that makes it easier. I was again amazed with their sensitivity. It was almost the silences. The scene when I come to his house, it was the silences between them talking. With as fast as this picture moved it gave me a sense of two old friends that know each other. Danny and I, we met each other in 1967. We were roommates in ‘69. I wish I’d done more with him. This is the first since “War of the Roses.” But that was Brian and David’s idea, really, thinking about who the guy was. They said Danny and I said, “I’ll call him and see if he can come in for a little bit.” It added like a good old robe that you wear. So I enjoyed that.
MMM: As far as the “comfort factor” is concerned, you’re going to work again with Stephen Soderbergh who you worked with on “Traffic.” What can you say about your upcoming collaboration, “Knockout?”
DOUGLAS: I don’t know. Maybe we should go back to “The Girlfriend Experience,” but we’ve got to get Stephen to stop watching television too much. I was there for a very short period of time but basically Stephen has discovered this Gina Carano who’s an ultimate fighter. She’s one of these ultimate fighters. She’s quite attractive and I think in the spirit of a super-action-Bruce Lee-as-a-leading-lady in a good story that he’s built around, but with action scenes that you don’t cutaway from. She gives as good as it takes. It’s a little disturbing to see a lady get hit in the mouth right on camera and then come back. It was pretty good. I had a short stint in there with Antonio Banderas.
MMM: How did you go about preparing for the role of Ben?
DOUGLAS: Well, I guess I’ll use the example of when I was doing “Fatal Attraction.” Someone told me early on that the camera can always tell when you’re lying. Oh, my God. So, I used to act painfully. I would act in such pain. I remember starting “Fatal Attraction” and there are two types of actors: one is building the character and putting a character on and then it just donned on me. I said, “Wait a minute, we lie all the time. We lie everyday.” So this all of a sudden came over me and it started with “Fatal.” I said, “Well, I could be a lawyer.” So that’s the question; rather than putting the makeup on it’s about stripping it off. Wiping your face off, wiping it all off. It’s just trying to get down to some kind of truth. When you have something written as well this, I mean the character is there on the page for you. The rhythm is there. He’s a car dealer and so you have that and you know the pace that you’ve got to get up to dialogue-wise to make it work. So then if it’s good it takes off by itself.
MMM: Your character sleeps with a teenager. Do you think he’s using sex as a substitute for everything else he’s lost in his life?
DOUGLAS: Sure,I mean, that’s a part of it. He’s definitely medicating, whether it’s sex or anything else, in one sense. But he’s reaching out. He’s drowning and trying to get out and isn’t thinking straight. Mind you, I think they did the scene very well. I keep defending them. Imogen is a lovely young lady but the character is right there, too. It’s not as if I’m hustling her.
MMM: How does it feel to play the character of a middle-aged man who is sleeping with a 19-year-old and it’s meant to come off as normal?
DOUGLAS: Well, that’s the way that it goes. I enjoy provocative things, provoking or questionable, but the gay and lesbian movement killed Sharon Stone for portraying a lesbian as a murderer. There’s always somebody or something. You really do it for ourselves. You hope that if it turns out good, the only joy – I do – is I figure that someone else there might like it. I really don’t worry too much about that.
MMM: Is this your first time working with two directors? What was that like?
DOUGLAS: No. It’s my second time. They were brothers. I can’t remember. It was good. I mean I was curious how it was going to be but I have to say that it wasn’t good cop bad cop. Every once in a while they would come in with a suggestion, very good ones, I might add. They were very sweet and patient. There were times, because of the schedule and everything, that I might’ve been a little curt but they were cool about that. They just did a nice job. Casting is really everything because if you cast a movie right, directors have so much else to do besides tell actors what to do. There are so many issues and problems and if you’ve cast it right you should be able to let it go and they’re going to play it out and they might even surprise you. I have to say, most of the time actors elevate things. They don’t screw things up most of the time. It’s a tribute to Brian’s script. That’s a part of why we got so many wonderful actors to come in on an ensemble-type situation.
MMM: Now that your wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, has had such a big hit on Broadway, do you have the urge to star in a Broadway production?
DOUGLAS: I had been exploring that but now, after watching Catherine work, I’m re-evaluating the situation. I don’t think we’re quite ready as a family unit to start up for next season and it looks like I’m going to do “Liberace” with Stephen Soderbergh and Matt Damon in the early part of 2011.
MMM: What do you look for in new projects? And why did you think it was time to revisit “Wall Street?”
DOUGLAS: Well, I look for, really, a good piece of material. A movie, not a part. I look for, “That’s a movie that I’d like to see. That’s a movie I’d like to be a part of.” Sometimes with this you get the great parts. With “Wall Street,” Charlie Sheen carried that movie the first time. Gordon Gekko is a great written villain but it was a small chunk of that whole film and it was well written. It came up. They asked me. It was after ‘07 when it all happened, they asked me about the idea of doing a sequel and I thought that it sounded like an appropriate time. It was kind of interesting and I started thinking, “Ah, that’d be cool.” We thought, “Lets see, ‘86 or ‘87,” and we figured out with Oliver [Stone] that, “Alright, he fought for appeals for about five years. ‘92. He went to jail for eight years. He gets out in 2001. He can’t trade anymore. So in ‘07/’08 he’s got a book foreseeing what all happened.” So it just seemed appropriate. There was a little bit of pressure because it wasn’t a simple entertainment, action kind of picture but I’ve seen it. I haven’t seen the whole complete version but I saw it before they took out the last couple of minutes and it looked really good.
MMM: How did it feel being back in those shoes again?
DOUGLAS: Well, they were very different shoes. Gordon has been in jail for eight years.
MMM: And working with Oliver again?
DOUGLAS: Those are the same shoes. Same shoes. He’s a very, very talented guy but he does test his actors. And his idea for getting the best performance, I don’t take it personally, but he tests you and he’s really good and then the picture turned out good. You can’t argue. Almost every picture he’s done actors have given their best performance going back to Jimmy Woods in “Salvador” and everybody.
SOLITARY MAN opens on May 21st in select theaters.